Last night brought Mark Padmore (tenor) and Paul Lewis (piano) to the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford for a recital of Schubert’s Winterreise, Schubert’s setting of a text by the short-lived lyric poet Wilhelm Müller. The poems focus on a ‘wanderer’ whose only friend is his shadow, having been rejected by his sweetheart in favour of a new lover. He walks past where he and his lover carved their names into a linden tree which invites him to ‘find his peace’ in suicide. Later he comes across a charcoal burner’s hut where he briefly falls asleep and dreams of spring, before being woken by the crow that has followed him since he left his beloved’s house in the town and he continues his wanderings. He tries to rest in a graveyard in a village, which Müller parallels with a tavern. He pushes on to the edge of the village, where he finds a hurdy-gurdy man: ignored and rejected by society, the poet resolves to join him. It is a song-cycle of abject misery, reflected in the frozen natural world he encounters; it is hard-hitting and without any sense of genuine redemption. Winterreise does not make for a light evening, but it is an experience that one cannot help but be drawn in by. This was furthered here by the helpful programme, which contained a translation of Müller’s text.

Autograph score of Winterreise, no. 2: ‘Die Wetterfahne’
Autograph score of Winterreise, no. 2: ‘Die Wetterfahne’

I personally like my Lieder melodramatic, particularly in a cycle such as Winterreise that verges on the operatic as far as raw emotion is concerned, so I was surprised when Padmore and Lewis started with a rather understated delivery of the first song, ‘Gute Nacht’. However, I quickly appreciated their decision as they built the emotional intensity over the evening, until the last Lied, ‘Der Leiermann’, wrenched my gut with its sheer dejection as both performers united in purpose, making their creation of the one forsaken character utterly convincing. Padmore in particular has a skill for evoking an intimate setting even in a space as large as the Sheldonian; I felt as if he was not only connecting with me, but with every part of the room. He did not try to fill the dead acoustic of the theatre, but rather drew the audience in to listen more attentively to what he was singing. His lovely, fairly light and consistent, spinning tone was certainly worth the extra attention, though there were one or two notes low in his register he seemed to be stretching to find. He handles his vibrato carefully, using it for dramatic effect rather than simply swamping the line in wobble. His performance seemed unlaboured, despite the care he had clearly taken.

Winterreise is a work full of contrasts and both Padmore and Lewis brought this out well, exploiting the unity of text and music. Love, despair, anger, bitterness, calm and fury all have their place in the cycle and both performers know how much of each to exert at each moment. What we saw yesterday at the Sheldonian was obviously the result of significant thought and study: it was a deeply intelligent performance. Padmore’s physical gestures were not thoughtless, but used to emphasise and illustrate the text to great effect, while Lewis’ gestures were more subtle, holding the still and often charged atmosphere for a moment in between movements with his hands suspended above the keyboard, before releasing the tension and moving on.

Lewis often created as much drama and conveyed as much emotion as Padmore. His touch was measured and deliberate and under his fingers, the most technically demanding of passages seemed effortless, leaving plenty of room for his unaffected musicianship to shine.

These two know their craft and their performance was utterly convincing; thrilling, chilling and crushing.