Mark Padmore and Jonathan Biss review – Schumann’s agony and ecstasy laid bare
In A Pianist Under the Influence, his short, probing ebook about Robert Schumann (1810-1856), the American pianist Jonathan Biss makes an observation so absurdly obvious (once someone else has made it) that you are stopped in your tracks: Schumann “knows the meaning of solitude and can translate it into sound”. For Biss, as for many other top musicians – the cellist Steven Isserlis and the pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Stephen Hough among them – Schumann provokes a singular, protective love, as if for a troubled child possessed of rare, awkward genius. His humanity and fragility course through every note and each unsettled rhythm that he wrote. Biss captures those fleeting shifts without any gothic horror or excess, only clear-eyed, generous insight.
Thus when the British tenor Mark Padmore, introducing their all-Schumann recital at Milton Court, urged his audience to “listen to the pianist, not to me”, he was not merely being modest. Schumann’s songs place the voice in the middle. The piano part twists above and below, inner melodies and counterpoint at times so self-contained it is almost a matter of indifference whether the singer joins in with this ongoing reverie. Or so it seems, except that Padmore, in the colour, dynamic range, nuance and drama of his performance, sometimes straining to its very limits, demands that you do, indeed, listen. As with all the finest Lieder singers, he can yoke his own experience – four decades, performing all kinds of repertoire – to the demands of the music, from simple longing to anguish.
The main works were two well-known cycles written in Schumann’s “year of song”, 1840: Liederkreis, Op 24 and Dichterliebe, Op 48 (in the full, 20-song version). Between these, the duo performed the mysterious Sechs Gedichte und Requiem (1850), Op 90, fragmentary and melancholy settings of poems by Nikolaus Lenau – like Schumann a depressive, as well as a sufferer from syphilis. Soon Schumann, his mind unravelling, would be in the asylum at Endenich outside Bonn, close to death and describing himself as an “honorary member of heaven”. As his earthly interpreters, Padmore and Biss gave us more than a glance at those terrible and inevitable siblings, agony and ecstasy.