La Scena Musicale

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mark Padmore and Imogen Cooper Bring Schöne Müllerin to Lincoln Center Recital Debut

By Barbara Sealock

English tenor, Mark Padmore, will make his Lincoln Center recital debut on February 25 with Schubert’s masterpiece, Die schöne Müllerin, in partnership with countrywoman and “poet of the piano”, Imogen Cooper.

Padmore’s voice, praised for “excelling in tenderness…ideally dulcet, with a hint of Italianate vibrancy,” is a fitting choice for the two-week Opening Nights celebration and debut of the newly re-envisioned Alice Tully Hall.

Fluent in widely-ranging periods and genres, from Bach cantatas and Baroque Opera to Benjamin Britten—his 2008 Peter Grimes performance under the direction of the late conductor, Richard Hickox, resulted in a Grammy-winning recording—Padmore has an uncommon gift for illuminating the soul of the music and the most subtle of poetic insights.

This he accomplishes with what critics have praised as “musical and spiritual acumen finely honed, his own pensive persona, so perfectly attuned to the sentiments he conveys, and daring to sing very quietly, drawing his audience into a very private devotional world…which has “moved everyone in the packed hall.”

It is somewhat surprising to learn that Padmore, for all his virtuosity, postponed Lieder performance until his forties, when he felt sufficiently prepared to embrace it. By the time he arrives at Lincoln Center, he will have sung Die schöne Müllerin about 50 times and is amazed every time that “when we set out on the journey, the jaunty music it starts out with can take you to the places it goes.”

Die schöne Müllerin is, to me, one of the really great pieces of music—right up there with the great works of literature and painting. It’s a very naive, sort of folkloric-like tale, with some archetypes thrown in. But it is enormously touching.”

“Basically, it‘s about a naïve young man who sets out on a journey with great enthusiasm, and his sensibility is very intense—attuned to nature and to what’s going on around him—but he falls in love at first glance with the miller’s daughter, really not giving himself a chance to even get to know her. He’s so taken with life and love, and of course she goes off and falls in love with the huntsman, the virile man. And the young man can’t compete and falls into depression, which leads to suicide. I think I find that it often provokes tears in an audience because they identify somewhere deep with dashed hopes and naïve expectations that this guy had of life.”

Well-known for their individual careers in concert halls around the world—Cooper is a distinguished champion of Schubert—the Padmore-Cooper musical partnership is comparative new, beginning at Festival de Valloires in northern France in 2006 at the suggestion of BBC/Radio 3 producer, Adam Gatehouse, a mutual friend and festival organizer. Although primarily a solo artist, Cooper had a well-established collaboration with Austrian baritone, Wolfgang Holzmair, praised as “one of the greatest living partnerships in song.”

“I had known Imogen for awhile but we had never actually worked together,” says Padmore. “She was, I think, a little bit suspicious about starting another collaboration with another singer, but I think Imogen and I did click very much. We performed Die schöne Müllerin that first year and then in 2007, we did Schwanengazang and last year for the first time, we did Winterreise. So it’s the kind of collaboration that’s occasional, but very, very fruitful. She’s a very stimulating, thoughtful musician with lots of ideas.”

Cooper, whose interpretations of Schubert, Mozart, Schumann, and a host of new composers are world-renowned, was brought up at a time when tradition held that solo pianists stick to solo performance, and venture into collaboration at the risk of being seen as a jack-of-all-trades. “Happily,” she says, “that is not the case anymore. Musicians in their 20s and 30s are doing everything and nobody thinks the worse for it. Now I play collaborative repertoire with a fresher mind and depth of understanding than I would have at age 25. I don’t feel I am an accompanist, rather a partner.”

Padmore would agree. “I don’t think either Imogen or I would think that we’ve arrived at a complete interpretation for all time. Rather, we just try and get into a state where, in the moment of performance, you can access all the things you’ve talked about—all the ideas you’ve had, and any one of them might influence the performance that particular night.”

Die schöne Müllerin is a big span of music to listen to, but I feel that in a good performance, you’re taken on a journey, both by the pianist and the singer. And with the translation, it should be possible to really follow what is going on. If it’s done well, and you allow the music to speak for itself—really, really speak, with its great skill and communication—I think that it is absolutely as powerful as any experience you can have.

“I don’t want people to come away and say, ‘Oh, Mark Padmore was amazing,’ so much as, ‘God, this music—I’ve never heard any music like that. I’ve never realized what a great piece it was.’ “That, I think, is the biggest compliment that can be paid.”

Barbara Sealock writes about classical music for periodicals and classical music websites

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