Mark Padmore:

“The balance between poetry and music is essential to me”


© Aart van der Wal, December 2010

Also published by MusicWeb International


Harmonia Mundi, the record label, had set the date and time for the interview on Friday, 3 December, at 6 PM. I was asked to arrive a few hours earlier to attend the rehearsals for that same evening’s concert.
The program: Schumann’s (1810-1856) Dichterliebe Op 48 and Liederkreis Op 24, together with five Heine songs (from Sängerfahrt Op. 33) by Franz Paul Lachner (1803-1890). The artists: the British tenor Mark Padmore (b. 1961) and his musical partner, the South African pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout (b. 1979).The instrument: on stage the 1837 French Erard piano, one would hardly associate with Robert Schumann, although Clara played on such an instrument when giving concerts at the Conservatoire and the Erard salon in Paris in 1839. Andreas Staier recorded for Harmonia Mundi a number of piano solo works by Schumann on that same instrument. The venue: the ‘Jurriaanse’ chamber music hall as part of the grand Doelen concert compound in Rotterdam. The weather: dark and grey, with low temperatures and snow almost around the corner.

In the hall I noticed Edwin Beunk, the Dutch indefatigable collector and restorer of old pianos, who is so frequently on the road with 'his' pianos that he sometimes forgets where he is. It is nothing special for him to be in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Enschede this week, and in a few days at the Salzburg Mozarteum, of course with one of his precious instruments that need to be tuned for the next recital.
A lot of the work is done in the workshop in Enschede, with the facilities needed to do all the woodwork, to work on the strings, the keyboard mechanism and the pedals. Very old instruments are taken apart and are being rebuilt with original materials. Missing parts are copied from similar instruments thereby using old materials and assembling techniques. Beunk and his staff take some pride that they have rented out restored instruments for concerts and recordings for years and years ahead and that these never failed to perform.
His experience ranges from the Viennese 'Hammerklavier' from Mozart's time up to the instruments of the Brahms era, but also those pianos that were built by companies like Broadwood in England and Pleyel and Erard in France.
For this occasion, Beunk had moved the 1837 Erard in his van from his workshop in Enschede. To begin with, when I arrived he had just completed tuning for the rehearsal. Later on he would tune for the evening concert.

Expecting a rather short rehearsal I was amazed to find that both performers were eager to do the major part of the two song cycles, joined by a few Lachner songs. I felt privileged - and the more so as I could not attend that evening concert - to be the only witness of two of the greatest artists of our time working with great zest on these songs they knew so well, the music they knew by heart. But still there was that unbeatable challenge to do it even better, to work on specific shadings, to get an even more expressive sound from the keyboard and to try to get the meaning of a song exactly right straight from the beginning. After about ninety minutes I pointed to my watch, asking Padmore when he would stop.“Just give us a few more minutes. We still want to try a Lachner song, but then we shall be all yours.”

And so it was. We decided to have a quick bite in the concert hall's restaurant. It did suit the occasion: British fish and chips. Time to talk!

  Mark Padmore (right) and Kristian Bezuidenhout
(Foto Marco Borggreve for Harmonia Mundi)

Different pianists

Padmore once said that he used to be treacherous to his pianists. The list proves his point: in the past he was partnered by Graham Johnson, Julius Drake, Roger Vignoles, Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner, Paul Lewis and now Kristian Bezuidenhout.
His previous partnership, with Lewis, came by chance, after they had coincidentally met at Marseilles airport. As with Bezuidenhout who was invited by violinist and festival director Daniel Hope to accompany Padmore in Schubert’s Winterreise in Savannah, Georgia. Daniel, who had already collaborated with both of them individually, frankly ‘engineered’ the duo recital. The collaboration happened to be an instant and great success, followed a couple of years later by a concert in Cologne. Then came this Schumann/Lachner project which was recorded by Harmonia Mundi in London (click here for our CD review)..

Could it be of any significance that both Padmore and Bezuidenhout were once wind players, the former playing the clarinet and the latter the flute? Mark did not think so, but Kristian thought it plausible that the way in which a wind player ‘colours’ the music might also affect his piano playing. They are almost physically aware of tone colour by the connection between airstream and tone, which is quite different from the pianist only touching the keyboard. Admittedly, it is a theory, and certainly not more than that, but it could work that way.

In one of his many interviews Mark Padmore asserted that when working with Paul Lewis he found his beauty of tone unsurpassable. How would the tenor define it now, working with Kristian?
“What I highly esteem in working with Kris is not only his great musicianship as a pianist, but also his absolutely marvelous feeling for the poetry itself. His great sensitivity to the text and the way it plays out in the music. What I’ve found in his playing is what I’ve looked for myself: that very, very special blending of the poetry in the words with the poetry in the music. My ultimate goal is that we can both deliver this in a concert.”

In the most common terms: it all comes down to perceptiveness and responsiveness?
“Yes! I believe that this is essential. For me it would not work in any other way. But there is more to it, like Kristian playing on old pianos, one of his many virtues. He has his unique way of exploiting those ravishing tone colours, the subtleties he can bring to it, and the excitement we both experience when hearing new sounds from such an old instrument, like from this Erard. It is so much different from that of a Steinway, no matter how beautiful that instrument can sound.”
Kristian: “There are not that many singers around who can easily switch between the sound of a Steinway and an authentic instrument like this 1837 Erard. The Steinway delivers great sonorities, impressive resonances and strong projections in those large concert halls, but with the Erard and particularly the Viennese pianos from the early nineteenth century there is no battle really. With such an old instrument, singers suddenly find their voice far too big for it, or for the room. They may feel a little bit nervous or even tensed about it, but they quickly understand that another projection is needed from them. With Mark it happens to be a great experience, because we can explore so many ranges of colours together. He stimulates me to experiment with special pedals sounds and legato, with phrasing, dynamics and a real, real pianissimo. We feel that it is this kind of transparency that can be so beneficial to this great music. And it's fair to say that between singer and pianist there is less negotation needed.

With a modern Steinway any good accompanist must have a clear understanding of balancing with the singer. Especially in the piano’s lower middle register there is the immediate rivalry with the tenor. I would say that the rather delicate tone registers of those old instruments suit the voice very well. As such, with all these delicacies on hand a tenor does not have to surpass his natural limits to make himself heard.
Kristian: “It’s fair to say that there is less negotiation needed.

No prima donna's

In the past, and even not so long ago, there were pianists like Gerald Moore (“Am I too loud?”) who were almost exclusively devoted to accompanying singers. Today we have a fascinating variety of great piano soloists in the lied repertoire. But not everyone is enthusiastic about this development. For instance, there is that probably everlasting discussion that they should not be engaged with the lieder repertoire, as they are supposedly too much occupied with their own solo career or too self-conscious in their musical interpretation. They cannot ‘serve’ but they need to shine instead. No prima donna's, please!
Mark: “I can only say that one of the benefits of working with great solo pianists like Lewis, Fellner and Kris is their huge knowledge of the piano solo repertoire, but also of the concertos. For instance, Paul and Till did all the Beethoven sonatas and concertos. I clearly recognize and appreciate that broad field of experience in their association with me.”
Kristian: “It is very interesting that Mark works a lot with top level pianists. That’s another element in how to reach a much higher and much more respectable level compared to the kind of factory mentality, with the diva star doing her voice recital with her accompanist once in a season. That makes it so refreshing and illuminating to work with Mark.”
Mark: “There’s another reason to work with different pianists: the sense that each time there is that slight blankness to begin with, the empty bottle that needs to be filled. We imagine that along the path we reach out and that we come to new ideas. Not the kind of bland repetition that finally kills all music.”

No pianistic convenience

Beethoven in his late sonates and Schubert did not particularly write with pianistic convenience in mind. In Schubert’s Winterreise for instance, there are a lot of bare lines and straightforward chord progressions that fail to kick off great playing. Schubert did not project the piano part as a kind of milestone, but – as it seems to me - the cycle as a whole. We hear many glorious inventions, adventures and refinements alongside many undemanding notes.
Kristian: “There are pieces pianists don’t like to play. A piece like the Lindenbaum looks very simple in technique, but I can tell you that it is very difficult to bring off as an interpretation. A lot of Schubert’s keyboard writing is rather awkward and strangely placed, with a lot of the voicing that makes fluidity difficult. You may feel a little bit pressured by it sometimes. It is not very giving keyboard playing in a way you play for instance a Mozart sonata. You instantly feel that Mozart understood every aspect of the keyboard. He never wrote in a way that creates hardship to a pianist. Even the difficult stuff he wrote is still very comfortable and idiosyncratic. Compared to Schubert, and particularly his sonatas, it’s fairly easier to find the light at the end of Mozart’s tunnel.”

  Mark Padmore (Foto Marco Borggreve)

Maybe as a musician and a composer Schubert was less connected to the keyboard?
Kristian: “Perhaps he was. Thinking of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and to a certain extent Mendelssohn, there is obviously that very strong connection. However, Schubert’s career was simply not focused on that. So it is quite understandable. What finally counts is the message, and less so its conveyance.”
Mark: “Not with Schumann! His songs reveal exactly the opposite, these are piano pieces with vocal accompaniment! Here it is often Kris who dominates the scene, not me!”
Kristian: “Mozart’s songs for instance are something quite different. Their texture is different. For instance, the right hand often contains the same material as the singer’s part. That changed dramatically at the beginning of the nineteenth century. With Schumann you get an often very complicated piano part and a very rich sound image with obbligato tenor! It makes it even more striking to hear all this on a well-kept period instrument. It is amazing how much diverse, how adventurous this can sound.”
Mark: “That’s particularly true of Schumann. I think that in his Dichterliebe the piano carries in many ways more emotional weight than the voice. As a singer I get very conscious about that, drawing more attention to the piano in my performances. This is what I also try to convey to the audience. There are singers who lose interest in the piano part as soon as their part ends, but I don’t think that it should be that way. Apart from that, a singer who doesn’t much care about the words itself can’t do any justice to this music.”

How does it sound?

At the rehearsal Padmore asked me a few times if the balance was right from my seating position in the hall.
“The balance between poetry and music is in a way essential to me, like in Dichterliebe. Balancing the voice and the piano is terribly important. I don’t want people to hear this recital and think it’s just Schumann, but it’s Heine as well. The poetry is wonderful and I really wish people to go home and also think a little bit about Heine. If that happens, if I feel that the audience really pays attention, getting that sense from the public, to the whole thing, the singing, the piano and the words, then, but only then I’m satisfied. To me this makes all the difference between a good performance and a most telling one.”

Sometimes, with an old piano waiting on the still empty stage, I noticed some premonition in the audience. As if they were thinking ‘good heavens, we have that one-dimensional honky-tonky sound again tonight’.
Mark: “People’s ears are used to the grandest of grand pianos and much less so to the more elusive sound of old instruments. There is not much in my hand that could change that attitude. The main thing here is that there is so much prejudice around it that it can be hard to value those lovely, fine-graded colours in the many registers. Of course, as performers, we love the beauty of sound of the Steinway grand, but it’s like driving in a Rolls-Royce, you don’t feel the road so much. With for instance the Erard you get a much better feel of the ‘driving’ itself, of the road beneath you. But indeed, it can be very comfortable and comforting with a Steinway. It offers great support. On the other hand, an old instrument sounds more transparent, and as a singer you’re a bit more exposed in certain way. However, I think this is a good thing, I like that.”
“But apart from which piano to be used, there is always the dialogue between pianist and singer. Not only in performing the songs on stage, but also in discussing the response to the music and text. I always try to be very much alive to what the pianist exactly is trying to do, by listening and by evaluating.”
“It’s a very good thing to treat this music as chamber music. To me, Schubert’s songs are in the world of his sonatas, where Schumann’s lieder have their roots not only in his piano solo pieces, but also in his trio's, quartets and quintet. Working with Kristian brings that whole world within reach. It is that broader picture that I embrace. It may not be the world of the dominating star singer but that is something I don’t like anyway.”

Full cycle

I still remember the days that song cycles were hardly performed completely. Instead, we got some snapshots, the choice was with the singer. Today we might say we’re spoiled, with all these full-length Müllerin, Winterreise, Dichterliebe song cycles, and even Schwanengesang (which originally was not a cycle at all: Schubert’s brother and subsequently his publisher made it so).
Mark: “I think it was Julius Christian Stockhausen who was the first singer to perform a whole cycle in public in the 1860s. That must have been a courageous enterprise, because at that time even Schubert’s piano sonatas were in oblivion. After having performed so many song cycles I must stress that no individual song can deliver the same impact as when being performed as part of the whole work. There may be exceptions, but definitely not with cycles like Müllerin and Winterreise.”

A bitter tone

We might say that Winterreise is a gloomy work, Schumanns Dichterliebe much less so. Do you feel Schumann’s later mental darkness in this song cycle already?
Mark: “You can see from his choice of poems that his attitude to love is not particularly an optimistic one. The poetry is very bitter. I’m sure that the various crises and disappointments in his life played out in both, Liederkreis and Dichterliebe. There are those images of struggle, and that things go terribly wrong. In this music you get the idea of premonitions of tragedy, together with the possibility of depression. In terms of musical greatness 1840 was an incredible year for Schumann.”

And so for us. It might be added that to Schumann the poetry of Heine and Eichendorff opened musical ways to all the romantic emotions from that period. There were these heartfelt images of wandering, nature, lost love, longing, regret and sorrow. Every contemporary musician should find his dictum to put the words and music in a present-day perspective as well.

About imitation and limitation

Mark: “There has always been the tendency not to bring individual variety to the songs, in the sense of their strong variety in terms of text and musical scope, but to imitate other interpreters. There is imitation, no question about it. I, for myself, vividly remember an early lesson. I think it was at recording the Weihnachtsoratorium with Harry Christophers. It happened to be one of the first major records I took part in. When I was listening to the playbacks and felt very disappointed what I sounded like. I suddenly realised that I sounded like Anthony Rolfe-Johnson. It was his sound I had aimed to, without knowing that I did so. Finally I reached the point in my career that I loved the sound that I had, although I know my limitations and still need to take lessons to improve what I’m doing.”

Where are your limitations?
“In my range of colours. So I don’t sing Verdi, Puccini, Wagner. That’s to say that when it gets to the more heroic roles I feel I have a slightly more restricted palette. But there are lots of other things I can do. What I’m consistently after is not highlighting my role as a a singer but the repertoire. People should rather listen to the song instead of to the singer.”

  Kristian Bezuidenhout

Musical depth

What about the connotation of musical depth in symphonies, concertos and chamber music?
Kristian: “When composers wrote at the end of eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century they had specific goals in mind. They wrote their symphonies and piano concertos in the full understanding that they needed to satisfy a very strong public objective, where chamber music, by its nature, is much more intimate and private.”
Mark: “The big repertoire like symphonies and concertos complied with public standards. Composers tried to reach a lot of people at one time, so things had to be done in bolder lines, and with bolder, stronger ideas as well. This is music that simply tells you what is going on. When you get to chamber music repertoire there is more out there to discover, like with literature. There are authors who are very good in story-telling, in a very clear fashion, where there are books you have to work your way out of it. With the chamber repertoire it is like reading poetry, trying to make sense of things, with its complex argument, context, syntax, etc. More often than not you need to go back to previous lines before the next one makes sense.”
“As a singer I enjoy the incredible range of the lied repertoire. When you only consider the nineteenth century there is so much, by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms. It takes a lot of time to discover this music. It is really not a matter of singing the notes of for instance Winterreise and think you’re there. I remember when I first performed Winterreise I really wished I had already performed it twenty times. It is longer than any symphony from that period. Dichterliebe itself is a small song cycle by comparison, but it still takes about thirty minutes, the length of a symphony. And there is no patchwork here.”

King Lear and Hamlet

“To me, Winterreise is like the St. Matthew Passion but also King Lear. It has that status. The Müllerin is quite different, of course, it’s more like Hamlet. Winterreise has that daring look at the world as it is, often cruel and lonely. At the same time it’s the story of the outsider, more like a Samuel Beckett character, somebody standing outside of life and realising that he needs to carry on in the face of all of the world’s misery. And he rejects the bourgeois, the biedermeier, the comfortable setting of it all.”


What about recording? It seems to be an art in itself.
Mark: “Even without public you can explore the depths of the music and be imaginative, and foremost because it clicks between the two of us. And with these Schumann works it was no problem whatsoever. It went very well and straight from the very beginning because we knew the repertoire quite well already prior to recording it. We were just there to make music together and I think it worked fine.”
Kristian: “We went through a lot of takes, without ever feeling stressed. The atmosphere was very relaxed, and there was ample time to try things out before settling for what we thought was right. Just a few people involved, no hassle, nothing to be distracted from.”


Why Lachner on their repertoire?
Mark: “Franz Lachner was born in 1803 and therefore a contemporary of both Schubert and Schumann. Apart from that, we opted for texts by Heine, like with Schumann's Dichterliebe and Liederkreis. Compared to these two great masters his lieder stand up very well, I can tell you. They may not be on the very same level, but Lachner’s individual voice needs to be heard as well. His songs are well-designed, Fischermädchen most touching. Sometimes there is that gothic and dramatic bang of Schubert’s Erlkönig in his songs. And not to forget those Heine texts!”

You’re also performing Liederkreis Op 24, Schumann’s song cycle also on texts by Heinrich Heine. There is another Liederkreis by Schumann, his Op 39, on texts by Joseph von Eichendorff. The great poet told Clara Schumann in Vienna in 1847 that Schumann’s music had given his words real life. As if only musical meaning could deliver the full impact of the poetry.
Mark: “I didn’t realise that but it just confirms the points I have made.”

A few pictures of the 1837 Erard and Kristian Bezuidenhout (Rotterdam, 3 December 2010)


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