“Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder”. The British tenor Mark Padmore opens the recital season at La Monnaie on September 24th. Accompanied by pianist Simon Lepper, he will perform Robert Schumann’s Kerner Lieder and Ludwig van Beethoven’s intimate cycle An die ferne Geliebte. Of all Beethoven’s works, it is his large-scale pieces for orchestra which tend to steal the limelight, but Mark Padmore shows how Beethoven was also a trailblazer in the Lied genre.
The first part of your programme is devoted entirely to Beethoven. Why do you think he isn’t better known as a composer of songs?
A very good question! It’s a mystery to me. Beethoven was the first composer to take the genre really seriously. Mozart and Haydn wrote some lovely things, but they are peripheral phenomena in their oeuvres. With Beethoven a new phase dawned for the Lied. Unprecedented attention was paid to the meaning and the composer chose texts of a very high literary standard, mainly by Goethe. The vocal writing is demanding (even if it is not as extreme as in the Missa solemnis or Fidelio) and the piano part requires at least as much attention from the listener. So everything I love to have in music: the meaning has the upper hand over pure virtuosity. The word is more interesting than the note.
Is that why you have sung the role of the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions so often?
Definitely. I have loved storytelling ever since I was a child. The transition to singing only changed the way I tell the stories. What is Christ’s Passion if it isn’t a scenario, the most moving and powerful scenario that exists? It’s a role I take on time and time again and always discover new things. There are endless ways you can shape the story, depending on whether you put the emphasis on this or that syllable, or on whether you draw it out slightly by leaving a silence or hold on to a high note... All that is so fascinating. Leoš Janáček’s music surprised me for the same reason. It is so closely bound up with the spoken language.
Rightly or wrongly, the public knows you better as an oratorio singer than as an opera singer.
I do both. It’s true that I sing more oratorio and songs than opera. But I love the theatre. I have sung just about everything that is suitable for my type of voice, but at the end of the day that is fairly limited. I can’t see myself singing bel canto of the Bellini or Donizetti type, and even less what is known as ‘the great repertoire’. As for Wagner, I do feel drawn to the role of Loge in Das Rheingold, but so far no conductor has asked me to do it.
To the continental ear, British tenors seem to have a common quality. How do you explain that?
That is only the case if you listen on a fairly superficial level. It’s true that in England singing is taught according to a choral tradition that requires a rather ‘smooth’ style. But listen more carefully and you notice that every British singer has something unique. Take, for example, my two teachers: Philip Langridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Whereas Anthony deliberately chose the beautiful legato and the purity of the line (his Cassio in Otello is memorable), Philip paid more attention to the text, to the meaning. I hope I have ingested something from both and that I will be able to put this across to the audience at La Monnaie in September.
Recorded by Dominique Joucken