Interview with Mark Padmore

I’ve known Mark for several years and was delighted that he agreed to do an email interview previewing three concerts of Schubert lieder in for the White Light Festival in fall 2015 . Originally Paul Lewis was slated to join Mark in the Schubert, but due to a (non-life threatening) health emergency, Kris Bezuidenhout replaced Lewis as pianist.

Ethan Iverson: Tell us more about Kris Bezuidenhout.

Mark Padmore: Kris is one of the most interesting and inventive musicians that I know. Like Paul Lewis, he came to the piano relatively late (they both started playing aged about 12). Kris now specializes on the fortepiano – so uses instruments or replicas of instruments from late 18th and early 19th century. The thing about those early pianos is that they each have distinctive characters – they are by no means all equally good and some are frankly pretty lousy – but if you find a great instrument then a player like Kris can make a wonderful variety of sounds. He also plays with an almost improvisatory freedom unusual in a classical musician.

EI: Kris must have a unique network of contacts simply to get him the right instruments for concerts everywhere.

MP: He does seem to know where the good instruments live. For the concerts at Alice Tully he is going to use a fortepiano from the Juilliard School that he has played and enjoyed. The other aspect to note about old pianos is that the design and technology was constantly changing – so that in 50 years from 1780 to 1830 the development is comparable to the automobile between 1910 and 1960. The difference between an instrument that Beethoven would have imagined using for his first piano sonata and the one he wrote the Hammerklavier for was enormous.

EI: When I heard you together at Zankel a few years ago playing Schumann, I was struck with how well the fortepiano fit with the vulnerable qualities of more intimate lieder. While a pianist almost has to hold back on a concert grand, on the fortepiano the touch and affect can always be direct.

MP: There is definitely a transparency about the sound – so I can sing really quietly and still be heard clearly. I think once the audiences ears get used to the sound it seems entirely natural and appropriate to the repertoire.

EI: You have worked with so many great pianists. Is it hard to adjust to everyone’s idiosyncrasies?

MP: Working with lots of different partners gives me endless possibilities for exploration and discovery. You just can’t reach a point where you know all there is to know about a piece like Winterreise. Even the process of reiterating what I think I know about the cycles gives me opportunity to see and hear things differently. I also don’t want to become fixed to one way of doing things – or, God forbid, an ‘interpretation’ – that would kill it stone dead.

EI: I suspect you prefer the term “partner” than “accompanist.”

MP: I usually try to use first names. Job titles are pretty reductive. But it is true that I believe that pianist and singer should be regarded as equals partners in this music.

EI: Some classical artists don’t like to discuss their record collection, but are there any documents that you have found particularly useful or engaging? You once mentioned a Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recording of Winterreise made shortly after World War II.

MP: One of the most interesting recordings of Winterreise is actually with a hurdy-gurdy – the instrument played by the beggar at the end of the cycle. To hear the songs played by Matthias Loibner, the Austrian virtuoso hurdy-gurdy player is a revelation. Check out “Der Leiermann” on YouTube.

EI: You don’t object to someone “modernizing” these hallowed songs?

MP: I really believe that the most important thing is to communicate – to hold an engaged and interesting conversation that includes the composer, the performer and the audience. In conversation you often rephrase or interpret someones words in order to try to understand them. I think you need to be alive to all aspects of a piece of music – how it might originally have been conceived – yes – but also how it has been understood since and what it might mean to us now. We kill old music if it has to be treated only with respect.

EI: I know you love to research your repertoire very thoroughly. What texts (besides musical scores) have inspired you in regard to Schubert lieder?

MP: Samuel Beckett was a great lover of Schubert and even included some references to them in his plays. The protagonist of Winterreise could easily be one of his characters. Robert Walser is also a writer that seems to me to have a similar spirit – particularly when Schubert is writing songs about outsiders and loners.

EI: As with Mozart, one wonders how Schubert could be so productive before dying so young.

MP: I think the really interesting thing about Schubert is that you can identify a ‘late style’ that kicked in when he was about 28. It is almost as if he crammed the whole of his compositional life into 15 years.

EI: How does Schubert’s instrumental music relate to his lieder for you? I remember you were listening to all kinds of Beethoven before performing some Beethoven lieder.

MP: I definitely hear things that they have in common – the incredible switches from major to minor, the obsessively repeated notes and the singing in 3rds and 6ths. It is also one of the reasons I enjoy working with solo pianists who have intimate knowledge of the piano repertoire. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster tells us, and making connections – actively engaging our memories in creative ways – is what music is all about.

EI: What is your favorite non-vocal Schubert?

MP: Radu Lupu playing the late A major piano sonata – the slow movement is unbelievably beautiful. Or, on the same disc – the opening movement of the A minor sonata. I could go on …

EI: How many times have you sung each of the three Schubert cycles by now?

MP: I’ve always thought that counting performances has a slight tinge of notches on the bedpost – it somehow seems ungallant.. What I can say is that I have never tired for a moment of rehearsing and performing the song cycles. And I am incredibly grateful that, unlike an actor who may get only one chance to perform Hamlet or Lady Macbeth, I will spend many years in their company.

They have become like walks on a favorite mountain. The weather is never quite the same. Or I could try a food metaphor and say that I never tire of cooking and eating a particular dish as long as I have good ingredients and good company to share the meal with.

EI: I’m going to put you on the spot here and ask if there’s anything in the three cycles you feel might have been a minor mis-calculation by the composer.

MP: I don’t think there is a note of Winterreise or Schwanengesang that I would choose to alter. The earlier cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, does contain some weaker songs but the overall effect is extraordinary – the ground covered from eagerness and naïvety to despair and suicide. The lullaby at the end is heartbreaking.