Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) continued its Vocal Series with the second of its four recitals. The vocalist was the English tenor Mark Padmore, making his third SFP appearance. His accompanist was pianist Paul Lewis, also giving his third SFP performance, the most recent of which was the solo recital he presented this past March.
Padmore chose to structure his program around two of the major poets in the history of German literature. The first half of his program consisted entirely of settings of the poems of Heinrich Heine, and all of the texts for the second half were by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Each poet, in turn, was interpreted musically by two major nineteenth-century composers. The Heine settings were by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The former was represented by the only song cycle on the program, the Opus 24 Liederkreis of nine songs, Schumann’s earliest mature venture into the art song genre. The composers for the Goethe selections spanned opposite ends of the nineteenth century, beginning with Franz Schubert, who composed 74 Goethe settings, and concluding with Hugo Wolf, who composed 60, 51 in one of his manic bursts of creativity between October of 1888 and February of 1889.
As Padmore observed in his brief opening remarks, Schumann’s Opus 24 was composed during a period of passionate exchange of love letters with Clara Wieck, and the two would finally marry later in 1840. Brahms, for his part, had his own love for Clara; and, while he was more discreet (and frustrated) about it, Clara may well have inspired the six songs that Padmore sang, Brahms’ only settings of Heine texts. This did not mean that Padmore tried to play up parallels between Schumann and Brahms. Schumann’s settings tend to have the same compact brevity that he had previously cultivated in his keyboard music, and there is a strong presence of his impetuous Florestan personality. The Brahms songs, on the other hand, were composed after Schumann’s death at a time when Brahms was beginning to enjoy some popular reception. One thus encounters a certain sense of security from a composer that no longer needs to prove himself with every new work that he writes. (The Brahms songs were not a cycle. Rather, Padmore extracted them from three published collections, Opus 71, Opus 85, and Opus 96.)
The unifying force of Heine’s poetry, however, can be found in his ability to tap into both the breadth and depth of human emotion. Both Padmore and Lewis knew exactly how to explore both of those dimensions, and it was particularly interesting to see the extent to which Lewis-the-accompanist was informed by his ability to perform the music of both Schumann and Brahms in solo recital settings. This made matters all the easier for Padmore to explore the impact of Heine’s way with words, so to speak, providing just the right balance of attention between what the poet chose to express and what both Schumann and Brahms chose to explore in realizing that expressiveness through music.
The Goethe selections, on the other hand, were much more of an assorted selection. However, those who listened to Christiane Karg frame her debut recital this past Friday around Mignon’s song “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn” from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship may have appreciated Padmore’s decision to sing Schubert’s settings of three of the harper’s songs from the same novel (not to mention the dark connection between these two characters in Goethe’s narrative). Nevertheless, what registered most in the second half of the program was the breadth of Goethe’s interest in “source material” and the expressiveness he could elicit across the full range of that breadth.
Most interesting may have been Wolf’s approach to the influence that the Persian poet Hafez had on Goethe, most evident in the poems collected in the West-Eastern Divan. Wolf seemed to be particularly interested in Goethe’s poems that celebrate drinking and Hafez’ interest in rationalizing that delight with the teachings of the Koran. As might be guessed, Wolf’s five “drunk songs” allowed Padmore to abandon the usual concert hall inhibitions, and Lewis provided just the right keyboard support for the manic qualities of these Wolf songs.
For his only encore selection Padmore returned to Schubert, this time setting Goethe’s friend Friedrich Schiller. He sang the D. 677, simply titled “Strophe von Schiller.” The strophe is actually a fragment from Schiller’s poem “Die Götter Greichenlands” (the gods of Greece). This amounted to a brief reflection on Classical tradition that seemed to set the balance straight after Wolf’s raucous celebrations of inebriation.