Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
An die ferne Geliebte, Op98
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
rec. 2018, Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
DECCA 4853577 
This is the kind of album that provokes serious thought about what a recording is or what it ought to be: is it, for example, meant to be something durable, designed to survive many repetitions; or is it a snapshot of a moment in the musical lives of the performers? Even with live recordings, is the decision to release a particular concert performance because it represents something out of the normal run of live events? This new recording by Padmore and Uchida is in no sense what used to be called “a library choice.” It captures the unpredictable, dazzling and sometimes unconvincing encounter between two master artists who may not in fact be terribly compatible yet a large amount of what makes this recording so gripping, even when things don’t quite work, derives from that fascinating incompatibility. This in itself raises a question as to whether, with the catalogue stuffed to the gills with recordings of even the most rare repertoire, we actually need any more safe recordings.
It is obvious from the first notes of Liebesbotschaft, the first song in the publisher confected posthumous ‘cycle’ Schwanengesang, that Uchida is the dominant partner. Her playing is lit by a luminous, nervous energy that seems to flow through the entire recording. Sometimes the normally unflappable Padmore seems to be trailing in her wake. I haven’t heard so much rough, occasionally even pinched singing from him. The watchword in Uchida’s playing is spontaneity. Like us the listeners, it sounds like Padmore never quite knew what his partner was going to do next. The whole recital is full of tension which is often directly audible in Padmore’s voice. How you find this will decide whether this is a recording for you. To return to my opening point I don’t think this is a recording for every day use at all.
It’s not like anyone who knows Uchida’s recordings of the Schubert sonatas wasn’t warned. She hovers here over Schubert’s accompaniments with an almost terrifying intensity. It isn’t just in more obviously dramatic songs such as Der Atlas that this level of focus reaps dividends – though it does and it is a heartstopping rendition- but sometimes it is the simplest and plainest songs that come most vividly to life. Listen to the clip clip of the horse’s hooves in Abschied for example.
The potential drawbacks of this high tightrope manner is an occasional flirtation with melodrama.
In Ihr Bild, the distortion in Padmore’s voice is virtually expressionist as if we were listening to Pierrot Lunaire rather than Schubert. The mellifluousness I associate with him and clearly audible throughout his recording of this cycle with Paul Lewis is very far away. Not entirely absent as the version of Die Fischermädchen amply demonstrates but even here I found myself wondering how on earth Uchida had managed to find hints of darkness in the song. Her introduction to Die Stadt reminds us that the gothic is an essential feature of the Romantic imagination and the fantasy in her playing makes most rivals seem prosaic. The repetitive arpeggio figure turns into something obsessive, almost deranged in Uchida’s hands. Turning to Frühlingssehnsucht it is not hard to hear how Uchida’s driving of the song’s ostinato rhythm disrupts Padmore’s attempts at a smooth legato. But once we get to the searching questions that end each verse, we get a sense of what Uchida is up to: the yearning mentioned in the song title aches palpably and this more perturbing take on what is on the surface a fairly innocent song resonates with the pain of a composer for whom such spring longings are a thing of the past.
A bigger problem is that, for all its faults, its peculiarities, its excessiveness, this is a performance of Schwanengesang that has haunted my memory. Padmore’s earlier version with Lewis radiates sensible musical virtues yet hearing this new account has ruined it for me – I can no longer unhear the extraordinary places Uchida pushes Padmore into. It reminds me that nothing about this cycle is normal. Psychologically it is meant to be a disturbing and disturbed place and that is what this recording gives us, like it or loathe it.
I’ve focused thus far on the Schubert because I suspect it will be the principal draw for most collectors with the Beethoven as a welcome bonus. Beethoven’s only song cycle has always attracted a kind of longing for it to be better or more significant than it actually is. One line of thought is that it is semi autobiographical but I find little evidence for this in its dreamy, pastoral mood. I prefer to see it as a musical experiment that appealed to Beethoven and which he enjoyed solving. Looking ahead the issue of welding lots of shorter movements into a convincing whole was to become a more pressing matter for Beethoven during his Late period. The most interesting bit about the cycle is the piano part upon which Uchida lavishes all her recreative gifts. The vocal line seldom frees itself from the four square nature of the verses of the text however ably Padmore sings it. It was a good idea to start the record with An die Ferne Geliebte as once the rippling accompaniment of Liebesbotschaft begins we are in a wholly different world of Lieder writing with which the Beethoven can’t compete.
Another mild oddity of this release is the recorded sound. Padmore is placed in a somewhat disembodied, echoey acoustic that reminded me – not unpleasingly – of Radio 3 live recordings of song recitals in the 80s!
There is no doubting the status of this release but it is equally certain that it will divide the crowd. As a live event I’m sure this would be a red letter day. How you feel about a permanent record of their partnership will decide how you view this urgent, unfettered account of Schubert’s last thoughts on Lieder. As for me, for all its flaws I found it thrilling.
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