Exclusive Interview with Mark Padmore: November 9, 2010
On Saturday, October 23, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with acclaimed English tenor Mark Padmore - whose new Harmonia mundi release features a dynamic new performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Liederkreis cycles, as well as songs by Franz Lachner, accompanied by Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano. In this rich and insightful conversation, Mr. Padmore discusses his approach to performing Schumann’s famed song cycles, including his distinct perspective on the interaction between voice and piano in these works. The two also discuss Mr. Padmore’s extensive background as a prolific Early Music vocalist - from his initial days with the Tallis Scholars and Hilliard Ensemble to his formative experiences with conductors William Christie and Philippe Herreweghe to his current projects leading his own productions of Bach’s St. John Passion, singing the role of the Evangelist for which he has become quite celebrated. Don’t miss this fascinating interview with a real “renaissance” singer!
“As a performer, you need to get immediacy into what you're doing, so people are hearing the music as if for the first time. It should raise questions; it certainly should make us listen intently to the words.”
– Mark Padmore
Nolan Gasser: Mark Padmore, welcome to Classical Archives. Let's begin with your forthcoming Harmonia mundi release: your first recording of Lieder by Robert Schumann - his Dichterliebe and Liederkreis; as well as some Heine settings by the composer Franz Lachner [(1803-90)]. I know that you performed this same program back in May and June in London and Leeds, though not with Kristian Bezuidenhout, who joins you for this recording. When did you two make the recording - and had you worked together much before?
MP: We made the recording in June of this year, and we did a few performances just prior to that in Mecklenburg, in Northern Germany, and in Bristol. We actually first worked together some years ago, in Savannah Georgia: [violinist] Daniel Hope put us together, and it just sort of clicked; we got on immediately very well. I love Kris' playing and he's got fantastic taste on those period instruments, which is very important - because sometimes fortepianos can sound rather unpleasant; but the piano he used on our recording is a really beautiful instrument, with a lot of character. So it's been great to work with him on this repertoire, and with an older instrument.
NG: And will he be playing a fortepiano as well in your upcoming recital of this same program at Carnegie Hall [just completed, on October 27]?
MP: Yes, that's right, I'm not exactly sure what instrument he's using, but I believe it's one based in Boston - Kris went to Eastman [School of Music, in Rochester, New York], where he's now a professor; so he knows of lots of fortepianos on the East Coast. I think he's very happy about this one - so I'm sure it's a special instrument [specifically, the instrument used at the Carnegie Hall recital was a 2001 Rodney J. Regier fortepiano, based on an early 19th c. model by Conrad Graf and Ignaz Bösendorfer].
NG: It should be a great treat for those in the audience, as I'm sure they're not too used to hearing a fortepiano at Carnegie Hall.
Now, this new Schumann disk follows by just a few months the release of your recording of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin [D.795] in August and his Winterreise [D.911], which was released late last year. Clearly you are drawn to these great, albeit rather despondent song cycles, where the composers grapple not just with a single, isolated poem, but with a larger narrative. Can you talk a bit about your aesthetic preparation of such a grand cycle as Dichterliebe, for example, and also what strikes you as a singer about Schumann's approach to setting the poetry, as compared to that of Schubert?
MP: Well, one thing you notice in performing Schumann, in particular, is that he was primarily a piano composer. His first 23 opus numbers were all piano pieces, and the Op.24 Liederkreis - the Heine Liederkreis [as opposed to the Eichendorff Liederkreis, Op.39] - is the first opus where he writes for voice with piano. But essentially, these early songs remain piano pieces, particularly Dichterliebe - where you have a lot of the emotional weight carried by the piano: famously, of course, in Dichterliebe you have these wonderful postludes [that is, a concluding piano passage following the end of the vocal line, as in "Ich will meine Seele tauchen" (No.5) and "Die alten, bösen Lieder" (No.16) - which are really substantial. But even within the songs, you often find the piano goes above the voice, and the lines played by the piano are sometimes more melodic than the vocal lines. The vocal part is there, of course, but almost as an obbligato instrument: it's text accompanying these wonderful piano pieces.
He wrote these songs for Clara - in 1840, his "year of song" [Liederjahr], he wrote over a 168 songs; they were gifts for Clara, and I think he expected her to play and sing them. That's how he first imagined them: they weren't really conceived as concert pieces. And we have to remember that the song cycles were not performed as such at the time - Dichterliebe didn't get its first full performance until the 1860s, after Schumann had died. But I think Clara would have made sense of them - as I say, primarily as piano pieces, with vocal lines attached. The poetry is admittedly peculiar as a love gift…
NG: Yes, this Heine poetry has a fairly dark take on love…
MP: Yes, it does focus on the bitterness of love; but I think that reflects the difficulties that Clara and Robert had in the years leading up to them getting married in 1840. And I think in a way Schumann subverts the poetry by this extraordinary piano writiNG: although the words have this bitterness, there's a sweetness in the piano writing and certainly a "romantic" attitude towards the text - and the ideas within it - which takes it beyond a dark or black view of life.
I'm just now recording Schubert's last song cycle, Schwanengesang [D.957], which also sets poetry by Heine. Schubert wrote these Lieder at the end of his life; and with the possible exception of "Das Fischermädchen" [No.10] - which is in a slightly lighter vein - the other songs are unremittingly dark. And the piano writing, and the full musical context of these songs, is extremely powerful, but extremely black, with no hope or any kind of redemptive gloss. So, Schumann is definitely in a different world than Schubert - or at least the Schubert at the end of his life, as heard in Schwanengesang. There is a sensibility in these Schumann songs that at least gives some space for romantic love.
NG: Of course, Schumann himself was a very literary creature, as you know - being an active music critic and even attempting a novel in his youth; so it makes sense that he would approach the poetry in such a sophisticated way, including using the piano to comment on, or even argue with, the text - such as in the postlude to the final song of Dichterliebe, "Die alten, bösen Lieder", where the piano offers more hope than the text would suggest. Still, it's interesting that you, as the singer, would see the voice part as accompaniment to the piano - or even as an equal player, and not as the "main event".
MP: Well, I think it's important to get that balance right. What has often happened to the Lieder repertoire is that it's been conceived as a vocal vehicle, and I think that the balance can get distorted that way. We should, as an audience, really listen to the complete works - which have both of those elements in a very equal balance. It's actually my aim, in recording these performances, to make sure that people are paying attention in the right kind of way to what is going on in the piano writing, and in a way it's very interesting to have a period instrument like Kris is using; the modern Steinway creates a really wonderful and beautiful sound, but it's quite even in every register. What you get with an older piano is this sort of character difference in the various registers - a cantabile warm bass register, with interesting colors in the middle register, and moving to a sort of filigree, clear effect toward the top. And that brings into relief a bit more of the piano writing.
NG: It sounds like you must have had some very interesting conversations with Kris as you two prepared for this recording; and also that the act of listening to the different timbres and hues of the various registers of the fortepiano affected the way that you sang and approached the text itself.
MP: Yes, indeed; another thing about an older piano is that it gives it a slightly more transparent texture, so I could afford to be quite "wordy" in my approach, not to have to compete with a big, loud modern instrument. And I think that allows the clarity of the text to carry through.
NG: This actually leads to another question I had, involving performance practice: performing Schumann and Lachner is obviously less fraught with mystery than performing Bach and Gesualdo, for example; still, these songs were written 150 years ago, and it therefore does raise questions about performance practice - which you're clearly grappling with just in introducing a period instrument. I know this is a topic that you've thought a lot about, thinking of an essay you wrote on performing Bach's St. John Passion - where you discuss the need to take a "questioning" approach, to consider not just the composer and his world, but the audience and our world - which obviously is a bit removed from mid-19th century Germany. So beyond what you've already said here, how have you taken this "questioning" approach into consideration as you've performed these Lieder?
MP: Well, I kind of like audiences not to feel too comfortable when I'm performing. There's a danger with a lot of this well-known repertoire, where people sit back and hear a performance sort of "unroll", which is based partly on the memory of the recordings they have of these great pieces. I certainly felt in the Bach Passions that there was a sense sometimes that people were not really thinking about what we were telling them in an immediately way, but rather thinking, "Oh, this is lovely music, and I've always loved the St. John Passion…" It's a bit the same thing with these great song cycles. As a performer, you need to get immediacy into what you're doing, so people are hearing the music as if for the first time. It should raise questions; it certainly should make us listen intently to the words. Now, when performing to an English-speaking audience in a foreign language, there's the slight problem of translation, and how we come to understand text that's not in our native tongue. But I think you can draw an audience in if, as a singer, you are concentrating on what the text means - what it means to you, and what you think it might have meant to Schumann or Schubert. The goal is to sort of disturb preconceptions, so that it's impossible for the music to just "wash over" the audience in a rather pleasant experience, but instead to be immediate and exciting, and sometimes troubling.
NG: I'm sure this is something that you try to feel within yourself as you perform as well - perhaps you need to go into some kind of meditative state, as if you too are hearing these pieces for the first time?
MP: Well, absolutely; there is something I do - which I think great actors do as well: to imagine the text as sort of coming in the moment, and not allowing it to just roll out as something pre-prepared. That's when life can be extremely exciting, but it takes a lot of concentration from the performer to make that happen. I've heard plenty of Lieder cycles that become dull, because you get the sense that it's not "taking place" for the performer - as beautifully as it may be sung, even if done with great tone and color, it doesn't work if the "immediacy" of the moment is not there. And in the end that's what the very best performances capture.
NG: You mention how a good actor can find that immediacy, and in many ways you are being an actor when singing these cycles - just as if you were on stage in an opera: you are talking this role of a lost soul who's been dejected by his beloved.
MP: Yes, you definitely have to understand the music each time in that immediate way. Song cycles are great for that, in that you have journeys to take, and the linking from one song to the next can be enormously important. Dichterliebe was definitely conceived as one song leading into the next, and a lot of the tonal relationships are clearly heard in this way. Kris and I were very concerned to make sure that the links on the CD were carefully thought out, so that it's not just one track after another with uniform gaps; it needs to have a sense that each song is absolutely linked to the next one. In the end, these are the considerations that are very important for a disk to be effective.
NG: So, the spaces between the different songs of the cycle vary - some are shorter, some longer?
NG: Interesting - that's something that can be a little lost in the digital realm, where people can download tracks individually…
I've also read some reviews of your concerts - how you interact directly with the audience before each work. When you perform at Carnegie, will you be giving an overview of the cycles prior to the performance, to draw in the audience?
MP: Yes, I'm planning to speak before - to say a bit about Heinrich Heine at the start of the concert; and then to tell them a little bit about Hans Lachner, who won't be that familiar to the audience, I should think. It's very important to engage the audience in whatever way you can, and it often does help to give a bit of explanation - to show that you're a human being, and not just a singer; it gives them a bit of insight into what you're trying to do, and I hope that will be helpful to the audience.
NG: I'm sure that it's going to be a very rich experience.
Now, although you've been singing this repertoire for a few years, it is not the literature you grew up on - at least not in the public eye. I'm thus wondering if there are any particular singers who you've looked up to as models to help you achieve the aesthetic that you've been describing - besides, I assume, [Dietrich] Fischer-Dieskau?
MP: [Laughs] Yes, of course. Well, [tenor] Peter Schreier is somebody that I've listened to a lot; he didn't necessarily have the most beautiful voice, but he's got an incredible intelligence in his singing - and his recordings with [pianist] Andras Schiff are, to my mind, some of the best of this repertoire. Of course, there's [tenor] Peter Pears, with Benjamin Britten, as another example - again, Pears' voice is not to everyone's taste, but actually one of the great joys of these performances is to listen to the extraordinary playing of Benjamin Britten; he had such an incredible understanding of this repertoire. We're blessed with a lot of very good singers: [baritones] Christian Gerharher is a friend and colleague, and someone I admire very much; and Thomas Quasthoff as well and Matthias Goerner… There are many great baritones, but not so many tenors.
It's an interesting thiNG: this repertoire is basically written for the tenor voice, and it needs to be heard in that register. Cycles like Dichterliebe and Winterreise have become known through the baritone voice - but some songs get distorted in this way, because the singers transpose them to suit their vocal range, and you don't get a consistent transposition throughout the cycle; you get jumps of tonality which don't always make sense of Schumann's original ideas. But there is a tonal quality in the tenor voice, which is very much what the composer had in mind. Of course, it's nice to hear these songs performed by all sorts of different voices - and a lot of mezzos and sopranos are now looking at the repertoire as well. So, it's great to hear different versions, but it's a shame that the tenor keys often get overlooked.
NG: In fact, Dichterliebe may have originally been conceived for a soprano voice [e.g., it was dedicated to soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient in its first publication] - which is obviously compatible with the tenor range, but requires transposition for the baritone, as you point out.
Now, this has been your own "year of song", which I assume is going to continue. You mentioned the Schwanengesang recording coming up; and can we assume that you'll continue with more Schumann, perhaps with Myrthen [Op.25], or with the songs of [Hugo] Wolf - or maybe even Mahler's grand orchestral song cycles down the line?
MP: I'm not sure… the next disk I'll make for Harmonia mundi, after the Schwanengesang, will be a Benjamin Britten disc of Nocturne [Op.60, song cycle] and Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings [Op.31], along with Gerald Finzi's Dies natalis - which I'm going to do with the Britten Sinfonia in February of next year. I definitely will continue with the Lieder repertoire - I'm certainly doing lots of song cycle performances with [pianists] Paul Lewis and Till Fellner; and I hope that Kris and I will follow up with another Schumann disc. We've been in discussion about what that might be, but you've got to take into consideration what the record industry is doing, and whether there's still enthusiasm for this repertory. Perhaps our Schumann disc will actually spark interest; the only other version I know recorded with fortepiano is that by [pianist] Andreas Staier and [tenor] Christoph Prégardien, which I believe is out of print. There's definitely a market for imaginative programs and imaginative ways of doing them, and I hope that will continue.
NG: I guess that's a happy problem - to have an overabundance of options. Now, I noted a bit ago that the Lieder repertoire is not how you initially came to prominence - which is more in the Early Music realm, writ large in your case. So, I'd love to tip the clock back and talk about your earlier achievements. I've been fortunate to interview a lot of musicians at this point, many of whom are fairly eclectic - but it's rare to find a performer who literally has made his career singing everything from Medieval organum to a new commission by Mark-Anthony Turnage - and a lot of music in between. Is this something you imagined - or perhaps willed for yourself - when you were playing clarinet in Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique under Colin Davis when you were 18?
MP: [Laughs] I'm not sure that I had that sort of concept, but actually being an instrumentalist did give me a great insight into music making in an eclectic way. When you're working in orchestras, you do a great variety of music, and I'm delighted now to be doing contemporary music. I did a new piece by Harrison Birtwistle last year and, as you mentioned, Mark-Anthony Turnage. I'm working on several new commissions that are happening now as well - so it's an exciting time in that way. I think the music of Bach, and to a lesser extent, Handel, will always be part of my repertoire - I can never get enough of singing Bach. I just did the St. Matthew Passion earlier this year with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle, in a new version directed by Peter Sellers, which had a really big effect in Berlin and Salzburg.
NG: I can imagine.
MP: So, I'm always looking for new approaches for myself, and my colleagues, and that will definitely continue - and to have a wide range of repertoire is always exciting to me; I don't want to be pigeonholed too much. Then, of course, there's repertoire I won't do: in the operatic world, for example, I have a more limited range, even though I will sing the role of Captain Vere in [Britten's opera] Billy Budd at Glyndebourne in 2013. And there's a small repertoire of opera that I'd still like to do; I love the theater, and I love the stage, so I'm trying to keep as many things up in the air as possible.
NG: Well, you seem to be doing an excellent job. Now, as I've looked over your very prolific output of over 80 recordings - and untold performances, and as I review the list of choirs and early music ensembles you've sung with, it's quite astonishing; it's really a "who's who" of the last 30 years: The Sixteen, the Deller Consort, the Tallis Scholars, the Hilliard Ensemble, Les Arts Florrisant, Collegium Vocale of Ghent, the Gabrieli Consort… - you're the ultimate vocal Free Agent! I'm sure it's wonderful to have been involved with this real "renaissance", if you will, of the Early Music movement.
You graduated from King's College in 1982, and early on you got involved with the so-called "Ox-bridge" circuit - including the two very eminent products of the early 70s: the Tallis Scholars and the Hilliard Ensemble. Let's start with the Tallis Scholars: how did you come to work with [director] Peter Phillips and his group back in 1984?
MP: There actually was a direct link of sorts between singing at King's Choir and getting into some of these groups; and once I left King's, I decided to go straightaway into singing professionally. Being able to sight-read, and being able to blend, and having had the experience of singing three years in the King's Choir, it does give one a good CV. I was invited to record the Byrd Masses with Peter Phillips initially - and at the time, the Tallis Scholars were recording a great deal, and in need of young voices that had the sound they were looking for. It was a great time to be involved with that repertoire; it suited my voice - which was light and high - very well. It was a great opportunity in my early 20s to start performing and recording at that level.
NG: And did you consider yourself a big Renaissance and early music fan at the time?
MP: I was very lucky to grow up with David Munrow as a prominent character in my listening; he had a radio program that ran on BBC during my teens, called Pied Piper, where he played a wide range of extraordinary music, the likes of which we had never really heard before [see accompanying video from David Munrow TV series Early Music Instruments]…
NG: Absolutely, Munrow was a true pioneer.
MP: One of the first LPs I bought was "Medieval Sound" or something like that - a lecture cycle of some sort that Munrow produced on a long-defunct label; but it was a fascinating thing to hear: shawms and crumhorns, and all that sort of stuff. So, I definitely had a real interest in that period, and loved listening to singers like [counter-tenor] James Bowman early in his career, and the kinds of things being done by David Munrow, Christopher Hogwood, and folks like that.
I was hearing recordings that were newly minted; it wasn't yet another recording of a Brahms symphony - it was fresh and exciting. So, I felt very lucky to become part of this scene, and to perform this repertoire with people who had an immense interest and knowledge of the music - which was still fairly new to me; it was wonderful.
NG: Your timing does seem to have been ideal, to have been involved in some of the Tallis Scholars' best recordings, for example - a couple in particular I'll mention: their 1989 recording of the two L'homme armé Masses by Josquin Des Prez; and the 1992 recording Antoine Brumel's 12-part Missa Et ecce terrae motus, both of which are truly incredible…
MP: Yes, I can recall that Brumel recording very well - it was a very special event: it was a big ensemble, and we made quite a big sound; and, of course, it was something that nobody had heard in centuries.
NG: Yes, it's an amazing work - not only in terms of its beauty, but also in projecting such a strong harmonic quality by virtue of this heavy scoring in 12 voices, as opposed to the more contrapuntal orientation we generally associate with this period; and I imagine it must have been a challenge to keep the intonation right with so many voice parts.
Now, the other famed "Ox-Bridge" group you were involved with at the time was the Hilliard Ensemble; I had the good fortune of being able to interview Paul Hillier some time ago, where he discussed the group's origins. Compared to singing with the Tallis Scholars, singing with the Hilliard Ensemble must have been a very different experience for you - being a much smaller and male-only ensemble. What was that experience like?
MP: It was a wonderful opportunity. I did quite a lot of concerts with them over a two- or three-year period, including my residency at UC Davis; we also toured Japan a few times. This was during a slight transition for them, because they were doing an awful lot of concerts, and the tenors in the group were not sure if they wanted to do all of the tours. So, I stood in for either John Potter or Rogers Covey-Crump. I got a chance to do their entire repertoire: from early works by Dufay and Josquin to their 20th century repertoire of John Cage and Steve Reich - an amazingly wide range of music. I also joined them for their ECM recordings of works by Perotin and Gesualdo's Tenebrae responsorial - which I love. I actually think that some of the concerts I did with the Hilliard Ensemble are among the most perfect music making I've ever done - with everything being just right; it's like playing in a great string quartet: when it went well, it felt very special.
NG: I can recall talking with Paul about his love for American minimalism - especially Steve Reich - as well as John Cage, and of course Arvo Pärt. So, you were there at an interesting moment in the ensemble's transformation - from a purely Early Music group with Perotin and [Guillaume de] Machaut to a much broader repertoire.
Then, from the 1990s, your career began to expand through your work with William Christie and the Les Arts Florissant, and then with Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Ghent. You mentioned how these two directors have had very big impacts on you, but in rather different ways. Can you talk about the role these two played in helping you to form your own approach to the music?
MP: There's a very distinct difference between these two conductors: Bill Christie being the theatrical one who was drawn to the French Baroque and to Handel, of course; and it was wonderful to perform this repertoire with him, which requires a theatrical imagination and a sort of extravagance and display. We did great performances of Purcell, and I had the great fortune to work with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in a stage performance of Charpentier's Medée and also Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie. That was a very exciting time for me; it was repertoire I didn't really know. I got some John Eliot Gardiner recordings of some Rameau prior to working with Bill, but it was pretty much new stuff for me; happily, it suited my voice very well.
Philippe Herreweghe is paradoxical in many ways: he doesn't really like the French Baroque or Handel very much, but he has this great affinity for Bach, and Schütz as well, and back to the more cerebral German Lutheran repertoire. And I certainly feel that I learned how to sing Bach by working with Philippe; he had a really wonderful orchestra, with one of the finest Continuo teams I've ever worked with - which enabled me to learn how to sing the Evangelist, and how to bring the text to life, and to understand, I think, what I wanted to put across in singing the music of Bach.
NG: You mention the role of the Evangelist, with which you have become very identified; I was just listening to you sing this role in the St. Matthew Passion recording with the Gabrieli Consort, and you do have such an engaging and natural approach to this role - it must have been like finding a perfect-fitting sweater when you first started to perform this role. Is it one that you sought out, or did Phillipe tap you for it?
MP: What happened is that he must have had someone drop out, and I got engaged; he obviously thought my voice suited the repertoire, and he gave me a lot of opportunities to work with the Collegium - and I became very much a regular, and toured with them a great deal. They did these wonderful tours: one year we did 15 St. Matthew Passions in one pre-Easter season, and that chance to perform a piece again and again, and each time to make it new, was very special. And yes, absolutely - the way the [Evangelist] roles lay suited my voice very much; but in particular, I think it was an intellectual affinity with the storytelling that's involved in singing the Evangelist, which absolutely caught my imagination and enthusiasm.
NG: And you've even conceived your own version of the St. John Passion - which you first performed in 2005 with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Is this the same production that you're doing in Aldeburgh with the Britten-Pears Orchestra in April?
MP: In a way, yes - this will be with younger, post-college, students; I will be singing the Evangelist and leading the production. I work really hard with the singers on their understanding of the text, and the same with the players as well - to try to make it a very vibrant, engaged performance in which everybody is responding to the text, and not just playing notes on the page. We've added various elements into the performance: the first time we did it was on Ash Wednesday - we added a Sermon in the middle; and the next time we added the last section of "Little Gidding" from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, along with Psalm 22 - which somewhat has the Passion text within it: "God, why hast Thou forsaken me," and the like. Then this time, we're going to do it with a new Sermon written by the British poet Blake Morrison; we're not yet quite sure what the subject will be, but it puts the Passion into context, instead of being a purely concert experience. I hope this provokes thought and engagement from the audience.
NG: It sounds like it would make a great DVD - to capture the full experience. And so inserting these various and divergent texts - including T.S. Eliot - are your decisions?
NG: Terrific. And will we be seeing more Mark Padmore productions and conceptions in the future - where you'll be taking on this kind of directorial role?
MP: I hope so. But I also really enjoy doing performances without conductors, where there's a challenge for all of us to take on more responsibility. There will be some of that on the disc we make with the Britten Sinfonia - where Britten's Serenade and Nocturne will be done without a conductor; so that will be a good challenge and something that I'm looking forward to very much.
NG: Yes, it's like the approach taken by [the a cappella vocal group] Stile antico - I had a chance to speak with Kate Ashby on this same sort of approach - and in undoubtedly does open up new opportunities, as well as challenges.
Well, thank you so much, Mark - we'll look forward to all of your many future projects; and again congratulations on the new disc.
MP: Thank you very much, it was great to talk to you.