'Fremd' is the very first word of the first song ('Gute Nacht') in Franz Schubert's Winterreise. And the sensation of being a stranger, an alien among the signposts of ordinary life – with its cottages and mail coaches, its inns and stray dogs – imbued this interpretation of the entire 24-song cycle by the tenor Mark Padmore and the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.

Mark Padmore © Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore
© Marco Borggreve

Winterreise marked the culmination of an outstanding three-concert journey which the duo recently undertook for Lincoln Center's sixth annual White Light Festival. They devoted each evening to one of the major Schubert cycles, incuding Die Schöne Müllerin (also by the Winterreise poet, Wilhelm Müller) and Schwanengesang (a de facto 'cycle' arranged after Schubert's death, which they paired with Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte).

This edition of the autumnal White Light Festival – programmes devoted to music's capacity to illuminate the interior life – concentrated on the role of language as a mediator of the inexpressible. With artists as intrepid and lucid as Padmore and Bezuidenhout, Schubert's art of the song proved to be an specially revealing vehicle for exploring the intersections of text, hieghtened speech, and the musical translation of feelings.

Padmore's trademark balance of textual sensitivity, theatrical focus, and emotional depth made this a moving but simultaneously harrowing account of the masterpiece Schubert composed in 1827, a year before his early death. Often one felt as though the tenor were singing yet another of the Bach Passion settings of which he is such a celebrated performer. And in the process, Padmore seemed so thoroughly fused to the identity of the nameless, haunted narrator who wanders, rejected, through the cycle that one feared for his well-being.

Two nights before, in Schwanengesang, he had sounded a note of longing and defiant pain (its very defiance signaling at least some vestige of hope remaining). But here Padmore homed in on the quality of emotional numbness Schubert evokes, of feelings so frozen by a long pattern of alienation that they morph into strange, unprecedented mysteries.

As Padmore's excellent partner, Bezuidenhout presided over a fortepiano modeled on the kind of keyboard Schubert would have known in the first decades of the 19th century in Vienna. It was not the combination intended: Paul Lewis had originally been slated to perform these concerts with the tenor on a modern instrument but, on account of recovery from surgery, had been replaced by the eminent fortepianist. Padmore has collaborated often with both keyboard artists.  

Bezuidenhout showed himself to be utterly in sympathy with Padmore's vision of the cycle, and the lighter, leaner sonority of the fortepiano, which was constructed almost entirely of wood by a contemporary master instrument builder. Its unexpected bouquet of colours (particularly in the bass) abetted the overall impression of emotions that strangely bubble up to the surface. In compelling postludes, Bezuidenhout extended the piano's commentary on the singer's images with a compellingly poetic touch.

A Baroque style of phrasing informed many of Padmore's choices as to vibrato and attack, bringing freshness to the most Sturm und Drang-ish passages in the cycle. The illusory respite of 'Der Lindenbaum' seemed even darker than usual, like an intercut in a film by Ingmar Bergman. 

The key to Padmore's account with Bezuidenhout was a kind of restraint that paradoxically amplified the effect of every gesture far more devastatingly than any histrionic overstatement could have done. This made the final song ('Der Leiermann'), with its picture of a barefoot organ-grinder described by the narrator, an indeliby Expressionist conclusion to the cycle – a shell-shocked depiction of emptiness that offers no possibility even of closure and that can end only with the narrator's bleak questions: 'Strange old man, shall I go with you? Shall you grind your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?'