Individual items during Wigmore Hall’s three-week festival of lunchtime recitals have clicked grimly with the time we’re in, but none have dripped with as much irony as Winterreise. Heard on a scorching, humid June day, Schubert’s chilly song cycle nevertheless touched on all too familiar themes: a man isolates himself from the house where he longs to be and embarks on a solitary journey into seclusion, depression, hallucination and withdrawal. This fellow needs a support bubble.

Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Padmore
© Wigmore Hall

Tenor Mark Padmore, partnered by Mitsuko Uchida, closed a week that had begun on a different London stage, that of the Royal Opera House, with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. In a time of famine, the chance to enjoy two such peaks of the vocal repertoire was a feast indeed.

Padmore’s account of Winterreise rippled with insights right from the moment in Schubert’s opening song, Gute Nacht, when he darkened his tone at “Schreib’ im Vorübergehen / An’s Tor dir gute Nacht” (I’ll write ‘goodnight’ on your gate as I pass) in order to suggest bitterness, even sarcasm, as the rejected wanderer walks away from his unseen beloved. I don’t recall hearing that before. The tenor’s performance was at its finest when he shrugged off his concern for tonal beauty, embraced the strain on his voice and immersed himself in the meat of Wilhelm Müller’s first-person verse. Hence while early in the cycle he didn’t burrow far inside Erstarrung (Numbness) – a fiendish song, full of histrionic despair – the jewel that followed on its heels, Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree), drew the listener deep within a reading that placed the song’s drama first and the singer’s technical delivery second.

Mitsuko Uchida
© Wigmore Hall
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In Mitsuko Uchida, Schubert’s piano part found a poetically probing interpreter. Under her fingers the frost on that linden tree shimmered in the chill wind, and in the last five songs she coloured the poet’s darkening abstraction from reality with an indefinable oddness. Only in Mut! (Courage!) did both musicians miss the essence. The song that Ian Bostridge characterised in his study Schubert’s Winter Journey as “the battle hymn of the unbeliever” lacked the tingle of adrenaline that would liberate it from the page.

It’s a personal idiosyncrasy of mine, fanciful perhaps, to see Schubert’s masterpiece as a poetic articulation of insomnia. The cycle’s restless moods are interior, the last five songs drift away from reality and the final number, Der Leiermann, seems less the call of an organ-grinder than a belated glimpse of the Sandman. Padmore and Uchida, consciously or not, seemed to indulge this view… or was that down to the emptiness of the Wigmore Hall? Inside its vacuum, their Winterreise offered the ultimate in intimacy and the last word in loneliness. It was the last of these concerts for the time being, and a series that’s nourished our hunger for music concluded by finding the key to greatness – but not quite turning it.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.