Schubert: Winterreise

Mark Padmore (tenor); Paul Lewis (piano) (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907484)

26 November 2009 3.5 stars

WinterreiseThis new Winterreise marks the start of a survey of Schubert's song-cycles by Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis. Presented in Harmonia Mundi's typically lavish style it shows two fine artists bringing a wealth of intelligence to what, by general consent, is the pinnacle of the lieder repertoire.

Most fascinating, perhaps, is the way in which Padmore deals with the dramatic demands of the songs. He is clearly aware that his sweet, light tenor is not a voice naturally predisposed to evoking desolation and despair – it is at the other end of the spectrum, say, from Peter Schreier's – and as a result he employs a series strategies to micro-manage much of the drama. We have him bordering on Sprechgesang at times, blanching the voice by removing vibrato elsewhere; from one line to the next he might switch mood schizophrenically; occasionally he just leans back, relaxes and produces some singing of aching beauty when the songs require it. Lewis's accompaniment sometimes joins him, reflecting the protagonist's shifting moods but, more often than not – such as in the epilogue to 'Wasserflut' – he seems to sit back, an objective observer to his pain, creating a fascinating disconnection between voice and accompaniment

In a handful of songs, the performances are little short of ideal. Among them, importantly, is the final 'Der Leiermann'. Not only do we have Lewis's brilliantly nuanced interpretation of the accompanying drone of the hurdy-gurdy – the appoggiatura drawn out to portray a numb lack of dexterity – but here Padmore's straightforward delivery is deeply effective and the results are moving and disquieting. He relaxes for most of 'Der Lindenbaum' to good effect, too, with Lewis producing some beautiful textures in the final verse. I also particularly liked the spritely tempo chosen for 'Die Post'; rarely has the accompaniment skipped with such a sense of anticipation with the natural result of intensifying the bitter disappointment that follows.

Elsewhere in the performance, with many songs almost overloaded with interpretative details, I was less totally convinced by Padmore's approach in particular. It is difficult not to be impressed with the way the final verse of 'Auf dem Flusse' is turned into a micro-drama, with Lewis powerfully evoking the strong currents beneath the frozen surface, but Padmore's delivery can seem fussy and didactic. Similarly listeners will react differently to the minutely variegated account of 'Rückblick' that follows. The approach seems entirely successful in 'Frühlingstraum' and I liked the careful differentiation between the cock crowing and the far more sinister ravens in the second stanza. There's a touching urgency to 'Letzte Hoffnung', too, even if the lyrical outburst on 'Wein', wein'' is pushed rather by Padmore. There's more excellent work from Lewis in the way he weights the repeated quavers in 'Der Wegweiser' but, for me, the tenor lacks the sheer charisma of voice for 'Mut!'

There are many very good reasons to hear this Winterreise and the many fans of both Lewis and Padmore are unlikely to be disappointed. Personally, while I have nothing but admiration for Lewis's often revelatory traversal of the piano accompaniments, Padmore's contributions are more problematic. Often, in terms of basic vocal apparatus, he sounds unsuited to the more declamatory songs. His intelligence as an artist brings compensation in terms of interpretative insight but it can be to the detriment of the cycle's sense of continuity.

By Hugo Shirley