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Classical 101

Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis' New Recording of Winterreise

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FOUR AUDIO PIECES [caption id="attachment_4983" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Schubert Winterreise"][/caption] Any recording of Franz Schubert's epic song cycle Winterreise is one to take seriously. But the other day I came across a brand-new recording by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis whose subtle beauties raise the bar in art song interpretation. Before we get to Padmore and Lewis, let's first briefly explore the wintry landscape of Schubert's cycle. The songs' texts are by the romantic poet Wilhelm Müller, who in them paints a picture of the human soul at once bleak and hopeful. From Schubert/Müller's cycle we see how deeply we yearn for meaning in an overwhelming world, we experience--we can physically feel--how love and alienation act on our souls like visions from the distorted looking glasses of a hall of mirrors. At the beginning of the cycle the protagonist (the "poetic I") wanders (wonders?) as a foreigner through his own life, seeking to make sense of the world. At the end, he ponders joining the hurdy-gurdy man in his aimless life of alienation. Not much progress there. But still we try to find a place for ourselves, we will always try. So really, this song cycle (like most song cycles) is not merely a collection of songs on a common theme, but rather an extended music drama. As such it challenges performers to develop the drama over the course of the cycle, to fashion the collection of songs into an expressive shape, to take the listener from point A to point Z. Schubert, who took to song writing like most people take to sins of the flesh (not that Schubert didn't take to those too), was a music dramatist who in his song cycles sent his singers and pianists--and their listeners--on full-fledged journeys. It's all there in the words and the music for good performers to bring forth. Given the accolades Padmore and Lewis have each received for their work, it's not at all surprising that their recording of Winterreise is a steady stream of beautiful, intensely well considered moments that pool into a drama of definite shape and texture. Though we can't talk happy endings with Winterreise, we can talk of getting the cycle's point across, which Padmore and Lewis certainly do. I'll point out some of the beauties that await in this performance. There's the musicians' langorous declaration in Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head), the protagonist's inner monologue on not the unfortunate ephemerality of life, but rather of how impossibly long a journey it is from cradle to grave. Padmore and Lewis don't hurry things up; the words and music simply happen at their petty pace: [audio:der_greise_kopf1.mp3] Then there's Lewis' brilliant pedal work in the next song, Die Krähe (The Crow), in which this ominous black bird--a symbol of the strange and ineffable--follows the protagonist on his trek to the grave. Just as Padmore remarks on the crow's strangeness in a voice not quite singing, not quite speaking, Lewis injects a Danny Elfman-like weirdness by sustaining the damper pedal: [audio:die_kraehe.mp3] In Das Wirtshaus (The Inn), the protagonist has finally arrived at the destination he has both dreaded and longed for. But the inn--a graveyard--has no room for him. He is forced to march on, dead man walking. Padmore and Lewis make us feel the heaviness of his footsteps: [audio:das_wirtshaus.mp3] In the cycle's last song, Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Player), the protagonist arrives at the fate he has tried to avoid by willing his own death: a life of meaninglessness. The drone of the hurdy-gurdy (here, the piano) gives voice to the permanent desperation that has defined our (anti-)hero's wanderings. Most performers play the grace notes in the piano part fleetingly, as though to bring out their smaller-than-normal appearance on the page. But Lewis lingers in the dissonance, the musical pain, these tiny notes cause against the "normal" notes around them. In doing so, the piano becomes not just a nifty fill-in for a hurdy-gurdy, but instead an emblem of the pain the outcast protagonist is condemned to feel, evidently, forever: [audio:der_leiermann.mp3] There is much, much more that could be said, but that's enough. If you like art song, this recording's a must. If you're curious about the world of the song cycle, you'll do no better than Padmore and Lewis. --Jennifer Hambrick