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‘Winterreise’ Review: Hiding a Roiling Grief

‘Winterreise’ Review: Hiding a Roiling Grief

It was a performance of hard-won wisdom. When the eminent pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the tenor Mark Padmore teamed up for Schubert’s “Winterreise” on Friday at Zankel Hall, they brought the maturity of hindsight to a genre-defining work of young, unrequited love. The concert was part of Uchida’s Perspectives series with Carnegie Hall.

Schubert’s cycle comprises 24 songs, most of them in minor keys, and derives from the natural world endless metaphors for heartache. The winter’s journey of the title begins with a breakup, and the narrator spends the rest of the time ruminating upon the fallout. The narrator’s beloved, he says, proved to be as fickle as a weather vane batted by the wind. His tears freeze and scald, and his numbness hides a roiling grief, like a river seething below a surface of ice.

The piano part has the capacity to amplify or comment on the narrator’s mental state, and Uchida used it to console him like a wise, empathetic friend. She eased into key changes with subtle decelerations. The octaves of “Der Lindenbaum” (“The Linden Tree”) were transparentrather than towering, and the rustling of branches had a dusky quality as though seen through the mollifying haze of a dream. In “Wasserflut” (“Flood”), she handled chromatic semitones with utmost delicacy to minimize the impact of their dissonant pangs. Her performance came to a peak in “Das Wirtshaus” (“The Inn”), where a slow, firm sequence of full-fingered chords provided ineffable comfort.

The narrator’s beloved dominates the first half, but in a curious twist, she largely vanishes in the second, as his despair consumes him and convinces him that he’s destined for life as a social pariah.

Uchida achieved arresting coherence across the entire cycle, but Padmore dug more specifically into that point of divergence. His acidulous tone, an awkward fit for the cycle’s early expressions of young heartbreak, illuminated the existential anguish of a soul who has decided he’s better off lost. Rather than struggle with that anguish, Padmore’s narrator embraced it with a sense of finality beyond his years.

Padmore muscled his way through the cycle’s first 12 songs, summoning a pointed resonance but no real sense of line in Schubert’s gracious melodies. The milky softness of his tone in early recordings has curdled, and his technique, which used to cultivate mellifluousness with frequent use of a precise and floaty mixed voice, now produces a hard and unwieldy sound that veered out of tune.

His interpretation pivoted on the third song of the second half, “Die Krähe” (“The Crow”), where his narrator’s self-pity and mordant resentments transmogrified into macabre fascinations with death. As he gazed at the sky with a gruesome smile and welcomed the crows to pick at his bones, his grip on reality loosened. He nurtured a nascent misanthropy in “Im Dorfe” (“In the Village”) and “Der stürmische Morgen” (“The Stormy Morning”). His voice became less effortful as he no longer fought to muster volume; he settled into the modest size and natural point of his instrument with disturbing calm and carved fine slits in the air as though with an assassin’s blade.

In a way, Padmore’s diminished capabilities underlined the profundity of the narrator’s wizened state. In the last song, the narrator encounters a hurdy-gurdy player, a forgotten old man on the outskirts of town. The ghostly vision filled Padmore’s voice with awe as he contemplated joining the man in self-imposed exile.

Carnegie’s Perspectives series is an opportunity for artists to share their distinctive points of view on repertoire, and Uchida and Padmore did just that, taking the narrator to his bleakest moment in order to find a bit of light.

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