Jonathan Biss, Mark Padmore, and friends: Schumann Under the Influence [October 4 and 6, 2012 at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco]

Much as I enjoyed hearing Mark Padmore at the Schwarzenberg Schubertiad this past June, I might not have made the effort to schedule a visit to San Francisco this past weekend in part to hear them, had I not noticed that these two concerts (with slightly different performers) will be given again this week at Wigmore Hall and later this month in Amsterdam.  In June I had been highly impressed by Padmore’s performance of the Heine-Lieder from Schubert’s Schwanengesang with pianist Paul Lewis, less so by his performance of the Beethoven songs on their program, including the cycle An die ferne Geliebte, both of which would appear on one or the other of these two programs.  But San Francisco is so much easier for me to visit than London, and I had such warm memories of the entire Schwarzenberg experience, that Mark Padmore felt rather like family as well, so I couldn’t resist the chance to hear these performers in advance of their appearances in Europe.

These performances are two in a series of four that have been “curated” by the young pianist Jonathan Biss who, depending upon which venue is telling the story, was invited by either San Francisco Performances or Wigmore Hall (or perhaps both, but no one is saying that) to dream up a series of recitals and concerts on any theme he liked.  For reasons that he eloquently explains in “A Pianist Under the Influence,” an essay of about 35 pages in a Kindle edition available from Amazon, he chose to build the series around Robert Schumann, including composers who influenced him and those who are influenced by him.  Essentially, Biss feels deeply connected with Schumann as a very vulnerable man and musician and in exploring Schumann’s music, he feels he is exploring his own personal depths.   Sitting in the second row one evening and the fourth row the other evening, I found this connection to be readily apparent, and it was easy to be drawn into it myself.

In a Skype interview before the first recital, Padmore commented that the recital that opened the series here (and will come second in London) had not been selling well because it was neither a piano recital (although it featured a lovely, heartfelt performance of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major) nor a vocal recital (since the only vocal piece was An die ferne Geliebte, which is quoted in the Fantasie).  Indeed, the audience in San Francisco was not as large as it could/should have been, and the anecdotal evidence of an overheard conversation in the restaurant beforehand suggested that the presence of the principal clarinetist from the San Francisco Symphony in the chamber pieces of the first half was as much of a draw as anything.  (The chamber ensemble will have different members in Europe).  So, while Saturday’s recital, which featured a familiar pairing of Schumann’s  Dichterliebe  and Schubert’s  Heine Lieder from Schwanengesang, but also a solo piano performance of Schumann’s late Gesänge der Frühe and the rather unexpected Sieben Frühe Lieder of Alban Berg, can be approached as a fairly standard Lieder recital, the other is best viewed as an evening in which Robert Schumann is truly at the center, and the performers are all at the service of his music or of music with a clear connection to him.

As a singer, I don’t feel qualified to give an in-depth review of the chamber pieces in the first half of the first recital, other than to say that Märchenerzählungen, Op. 132, is an absolutely lovely piece of music from late in Schumann’s life.  The demons were closing in upon him, but I heard little if any of that in the four movements of this piece, performed by Biss on the piano with Carey Bell on the clarinet and Scott St. John on viola.  The same ensemble filled out the first half with Gyorgy Kurtág’s Hommage à Robert Schumann, a set of nervous pieces that sounded like they were in fact depicting the psychological subtext underneath the sweetness of that late work by Schumann, ending with a very soft tap upon a bass drum by the clarinetist.  On the whole, the mix of instrumental colors was quite satisfying, and the ensemble sounded good to me.

The second half featured Schumann’s familiar Fantasie in C Major, opus 17, written early in Schumann’s career when he was finding his way in a musical world still dominated by the titanic figure of Beethoven. Schumann had been excited by the idea of creating a great physical monument to Beethoven but the monument eventually took the form of this piano piece, with its thematic quote from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte.  It was this cycle, peformed by Biss and Mark Padmore, that opened the second half.  Padmore’s signature style of vocal production features pure tones with limited vibrato, and if anything at all is interfering with this production, the high notes or forte passages may sound rough or constrained, as they had to me in some of the Beethoven songs he sang in Schwarzenberg.  But for whatever reason (increased familiarity with the cycle, better vocal health, a more relaxed atmosphere in the San Francisco audience, a special connection with the pianist), he absolutely nailed the piece this time.   His voice moved perfectly smoothly through the registers and dynamic changes, and his gestures and facial expressions were alive but not tense, always clearly connected to the music and words.  Because the vocal lines and words are so simple in all six songs, much of the interest in the piece comes from the details in the piano line, and Biss’s accompaniment added what needed to be added without overpowering the vocal line.

The recital that had begun with three musicians on stage and diminished to two, now closed with Jonathan Biss alone with the Steinway, channeling Florestan and Eusebius (Schumann’s names for two aspects of his own psyche) as he deeply felt Schumann’s coming to terms with the greatness of Beethoven.  The emotion was quite evident as he removed his glasses to wipe his eyes after finishing the first movement, then went on to execute the famously difficult jumps in the second movement, closing with the serenity and beauty of the final movement, to much appreciative applause.

The second recital (which will be the first performed at Wigmore Hall) consisted entirely of songs (although the first set, Gesänge der Fruhe, Opus 133, were songs in name only, since they are solo piano pieces).  As with the first recital, the program began with a very late piece whose loveliness belies the inner torment of Schumann’s life at the time.  They are dedicated “To Diotima”, the platonically beloved subject of some of the poems of another troubled soul, Friedrich Hölderlin.  There is plenty of emotion in these pieces (which, according to Schumann, “depict the emotions on the approach and advance of morning”) which was fully expressed in Biss’s sensitive performance.  Biss finds the harmonics in this piece to foreshadow those of Berg, so he chose to pair it with the latter’s Sieben Frühe Lieder, which will be performed in Europe by soprano Camilla Tilling, but, for economic reasons, was performed by Padmore in San Francisco.  This was the only piece on either program that Padmore did not perform entirely from memory (presumably because he does not expect this set, which is usually performed by a female singer, to become part of his permanent repertoire), but his use of the score did not interfere with his connection to the music or to the audience.  Remaining true to his vocal style, he sang these pieces with pure tones that moved smoothly through the registers, with fine diction and phrasing.  While I could fault nothing in his performance, my aesthetic preference would be for more overtones and a wider variety of tonal color in this music.  However, for one of my companions, this piece was the highlight of the evening, and I am grateful to Padmore for taking on the risk of singing this piece and mastering it as he did.

Biss’s programming concept called for the intermission to occur at this point, but it had been announced that the intermission would in fact follow the next set, which was the Heine-Lieder from Schubert’s  Schwanengesang. I am guessing that this change was made to allow Padmore a break where he most needed it, since, as in Schwarzenberg, Padmore’s performance of these six songs was highly dramatic, introducing a good deal more vibrato into the forte passages than I had heard at any other point in either the San Francisco or Schwarzenberg programs, beginning with the tempest of “Der Atlas” and concluding with a very spooky “Der Doppelgänger”.

After the intermission, Biss and Padmore returned to present a thoughtful and expressive Dichterliebe.  Again, Padmore’s connection with the emotions and music was complete and authentic.  Did I understand the cycle any better afterward than I had before?  Not really, but, after studying it and hearing numerous performances of it, I still find it deliberately open-ended and tantalizingly ambiguous, as is so much of Heine’s poetry.  For me, the cycle is about the journey through the “poet’s love”, bewildering, frustrating, stimulating, challenging, and enlivening, and the performers caught all of these.  My one concern was that in some places Padmore’s lower register notes, while fully supported and well produced, were just audible above the piano from where I was sitting in the fourth row.  This may have just been slight mismatch between a singer with whose normal voice production is light and pure, and a solo pianist with a fully open Steinway grand at his command as he channeled a Romantic composer.  For the most part, the collaboration between Biss and the other artists, in particular Padmore, was rich and sensitive.  As would be expected, he brought much to the all-important postludes of the songs, particularly in the manic “Das ist ein Flöten”, and taking a long, expressive pause between the dramatic ending of the sung section of “Die alten, bösen Lieder” and the harmonic shift that leads into the reprise of the achingly tender postlude to “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” that closes the cycle, during which Padmore stood very still, his eyes seeming to look into the casket at the poet’s buried loves.  As the two artists embraced at the conclusion of the music, both sets of eyes appeared to be moist, and I had the sense that we in the audience were not the only ones who had been moved by it.

After several enthusiastic curtain calls, the artists returned to cheer us up with an encore that, as Padmore announced from the stage, is an “almost happy song” from Schumann and Heine: “Die Lotosblume”, which was as tenderly and smoothly executed as the Dichterliebe songs had been.

A microsite for the Schumann Under the Influence series (including performance dates at various venues) can be found at


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