Die schöne Müllerin: Serious business

“Ich bin ja auch kein Gärtner,” proclaims the lovesick neurotic of Die schöne Müllerin in “Der Neugierige.”  “I surely am no gardener.”  I almost had to laugh, because I was sitting one row and two seats over from where I was the previous night watching a bushel of lovesick neurotics in La finta giardiniera.  While the loud backdrops were decorously covered by an enormous folding screen, the extra-shiny stage was unmistakable.

But unlike Friday night’s poor stuck victims, Mark Padmore and Till Fellner took us on a journey, as any good song cycle should.  Despite a rather cool beginning and some vocal limitations, by the end this was a very compelling interpretation, particularly because of the fantastic piano playing.

Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin.  Mark Padmore, tenor; Till Fellner, piano.  Theater an der Wien, 13/11/10.

Vocally, tenor and lieder specialist Mark Padmore has a narrow, pale “English tenor” type of sound, with great clarity but without a broad palette of colors.  His high notes often sound falsetto-ish and disconnected, and sometimes drift sharp.  I know that lush singing isn’t the reason to go to a liederabend, but as a big opera fan I always pay a lot of attention to vocal sound.  His type of voice is not really to my taste and this bothered me more than it should have.   His diction is fantastic and as far as I could tell his German is great.

His miller lad is an exceptionally serious one, and the first half of the cycle was in deadly earnest.  “Das Wandern” was more determined than exuberant.  The fast songs seem less joyful than nervously frantic, particularly the harsh da capo of “Am Feierabend.”  The tragedy of the second half was foreshadowed in halting, unexpected emphases–the “Ei willkommen” of “Halt” doesn’t actually sound that welcoming, and the obvious point of “Als wär’ dir was geschehen” in the very slow “Morgengruß.”  The “deins” of “Dein ist mein Herz” in  “Ungeduld” do Padmore’s voice no favors, but their thinness seems appropriate.  Less appropriate was the excessive falsettoing in “Der Neugierige.”  Interesting, but I wasn’t swept away yet.

I found the second half of the cycle much better than the first.  Padmore’s nervy approach seemed to pay off much more in the violence “Der Jäger” and the sorrow of “Die liebe Farbe.”  Narrative engagement, in short supply in the reserved first half, suddenly appeared, and he seemed to loosen up vocally as well.  By the last few songs, I was hanging on every word.  Dramatically speaking, Padmore serves more as narrator than protagonist, but sort of expressively breaks into the protagonist’s persona at a few of the most extreme points, very effectively. 

Till Fellner was an assertive and absolutely marvelous partner.  While Padmore’s singing was sometimes monochromatic, Fellner’s brook constantly changed colors and mood, sometimes surprisingly heavy (“Die böse Farbe”) or dry (“Der Neugierige”), but always interesting and attuned to the text without ever overpowering it.  He articulated the shape of each song that made far more aware of the harmonic underpinnings than usual, which perhaps indicates that I am usually lazy, but this time the music seemed to have grown an extra dimension.  Too bad they couldn’t have added a Schubert sonata to this program, as Padmore has apparently done elsewhere.

I have heard a lot about Padmore’s recording of this cycle with Paul Lewis (pictured above), which I am eager to hear as a companion piece to this one.  If only CDs weren’t so expensive!

Mark Padmore has written an essay on performing Die schöne Müllerin, which you can read here.  I can only give myself a B- on being an engaged audience member, I just don’t know this piece thoroughly enough, but I was doing my best.

Next: I’m leaving to get in line for Alcina in a bit.  It’s an improbably warm and sunny day and I’m worried the crowd will be large.

You may also like