Intelligence Gathering

English tenor Mark Padmore has earned a reputation as a committed Britten interpreter. ADRIAN TINNISWOOD illuminates the qualities that make Padmore a worthy successor to Peter Pears.

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In The Corridor at Aldeburgh, 2009
© Malcolm Watson/Aldeburgh Music 2013
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As Britten's Captain Vere at Glyndebourne, 2013
© Richard Hubert Smith 2013
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© Marco Borggreve 2013

The Medieval Hall at Salisbury in England is an ancient, intimate space, older even than the soaring spire of the cathedral in whose shadow it stands. For 750 years, people have gathered here to eat, to drink, to talk and make music. On this particular night, the high open timbers of the roof are decked with boughs of beech, and heavy woollen hangings cover the wall, evoking memories of some Wagnerian Hall of the Grail. An audience of around 160 sits and stands and murmurs and waits, expectant and perhaps a little nervous. The next item on the program, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne,is oneof Benjamin Britten's darkest works. Composed in the wake of the success of Peter Grimes and Britten's visit with Yehudi Menuhin to Germany in the summer of 1945, where the pair played Beethoven and Bach to Holocaust survivors at Belsen, the sequence makes for difficult listening.

A gaunt figure in black, with cropped hair and high cheekbones, steps up onto the tiny stage. Immediately there is silence. Then a series of urgent, pounding fortissimo octaves from the accompanist, and the figure breaks into a heartrending hymn of despair. "Oh my blacke soule! now thou art summoned / By sicknesse, death's herald and champion." The words soar through the hall, demanding, tortured. The voice, Mark Padmore's high tenor, is anguished, exquisite.

English tenors are always described as "intelligent." Obituarists paid tribute to Philip Langridge's intelligence and applauded Anthony Rolfe Johnson as "one of the most attractive and intelligent tenors." Critics praise Ian Bostridge for being "an intelligent singer." This is hardly an insult, but it is code, and it doesn't take much intelligence to decipher it. The word is used to imply a lack of fire, in rather the same way that English Baroque architecture is called "cerebral" to put a positive spin on the fact that it lacks the brio of Bernini. English tenors don't have the raw physicality of their Continental counterparts. Their training in the choral tradition gives their voices a reedy quality that sets them apart from tenors such as Pavarotti or the late, lamented Salvatore Licitra. 

Mark Padmore is a product of this English choral tradition. Moreover, he is intelligent and unashamed of the fact. There are two types of singer, he told me when we spoke this past summer — those for whom the sound is everything, such as Joan Sutherland, who was almost encouraged not to "do words," because it interfered with the sound; and those whose aim is to get the text across. Padmore puts himself firmly in this latter category. "It's not the vocal art that interests me so much,' he says. 'It's the singing.'"

Born in Woodford, a London suburb, and raised in Canterbury, Kent, Padmore learned the clarinet as a child and then went to King's College, Cambridge, as a choral scholar. In the 1980s, he worked with a number of groups known for Renaissance and Baroque polyphony, including the Tallis Scholars and the Sixteen. In 1986, he joined the Hilliard Ensemble, touring with them to the U.S. and Japan. 

Five years later, Padmore joined Les Arts Florissants, the great French Baroque ensemble founded in 1979 by Franco–American harpsichordist William Christie. The collaboration lasted for ten years, taking Padmore all over the world and attracting notice for his performances, particularly as Jason, Prince of Thessaly, in Charpentier's Médée, with the late Lorraine Hunt in the title role; and as Hippolyte to Hunt's Phèdre in a brilliant series of performances at the Palais Garnier of Hippo­lyte et Aricie, Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera (his first) of incestuous love and divine retribution. Driving always for authentic period sound, Christie found Padmore's high tenor voice particularly well suited to the haute-contre parts so beloved by French composers of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (although not by Rousseau, who in his 1768 Dictionnaire de Musique condemned the haute-contre as "always sour and rarely in tune"). 

Also in the 1990s, Padmore worked with the Belgian choral ensemble Collegium Vocale Ghent under Philippe Herreweghe, recording and performing many of the Bach Cantatas and touring with the St. John and St. Matthew Passions. "Bill Christie and Philippe Herreweghe were both enormously important to my development as a singer and as a musician," he has said. From Christie he learned about engagement with audiences, something that shines through in his performance to this day; and from Herreweghe he acquired "an intensely serious approach to rehearsing" and a deep love for Bach.

In recent years, Padmore has focused on recitals. He sang all three Schubert song cycles at the Wigmore Hall in London in 2008, and he has recently repeated them in Vienna and Paris. His recording with regular accompanist Paul Lewis of Schubert's Winterreise won Gramophone magazine's Vocal Solo Award in 2010. "It's always terrible to hear yourself singing," said the tenor when he came onstage to accept the award to the sound of a brief excerpt.

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With Henry Waddington (Christ) in the St. Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne, 2007
© Laurie Lewis/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2013

Since the late 1990s, when Padmore was the cowboy cook, Hot Biscuit Slim, in the Royal Opera House production of Paul Bunyan at the Snape Maltings, Britten has come to play an increasingly prominent part in his repertoire. Recent recordings, all well received, include the Holy Sonnets paired with Winter Words, Britten's intimate settings of Thomas Hardy poems, culminating in the heartrending, anguished cry of "How long?" at the end of "Before Life and After." Preserved on DVD is a masterly performance at Coventry Cathedral in the grueling War Requiem in 2012 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the piece's premiere, in its original setting. 

In the field of Britten opera, Padmore has been more hesitant. "I don't think of myself as an opera singer," he says. It is hard to know why. His first major foray was a triumph. In 2004, he played the dead manservant Peter Quint to Lisa Milne's Governess in a fine BBC version of The Turn of the Screw, arguably the darkest, most problematic and greatest of all Britten's operas, dealing as it does with suppressed sexuality, demonic possession and the corruption of innocence. The story of two orphaned children possessed by the ghosts of dead lovers, Quint and a previous governess, needs to frighten us if it is to do its work. And Padmore's Quint, his leering face pressed against a window pane, or encountering the boy Miles in the darkness of the night, or wrestling with Lisa Milne's Governess in the final scene for the soul of Miles, is genuinely terrifying. 

Britten's centenary year marks Padmore's return to opera. When I spoke to him, he was immersed in his preparations for the role of Captain Vere, who is attracted to young Billy and yet condemns him to death, in Glyndebourne's revival of its 2010 production of Billy Budd — "a big deal for me," says the tenor. He sees Billy Budd as a battle, with Vere in the middle of it, looking both ways and drawn to both sides. Vere's last song, "We committed his body to the deep," in which he claims to have achieved a kind of peace through Billy's blessing, is conventionally seen as a moment of redemption. Padmore is not so sure. In the final bars, the drift from major key back to minor hints at self-justification, at uncertainty. "When Vere claims to have been saved by Billy," he says, "we can choose whether or not to believe. I am looking to explore that ambiguity."

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In Handel's Jephtha at Welsh National Opera
© Bill Cooper 2013

In the hall at Salisbury, Padmore reaches the midpoint in the song cycle. The fifth of Donne's sonnets, "What if this present were the world's last night?", while still driven by an existential despair, holds out to the audience just a chance of redemption. 

It's not enough. Not yet.

A tenor who decides to tackle a Britten opera has to contend with a ghost. Like Quint, the spectral presence of Peter Pears — the man for whose distinctive, reedy voice Britten wrote all his major roles — always hovers close by, daring us to speak his name and break the spell. Or so you'd think. Padmore argues that in the twenty-seven years since Pears's death, others have managed to put their own mark on the roles of Quint and Peter Grimes, on Captain Vere and Aschenbach. "There was an intervening generation," he says. "Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Philip Langridge were my heroes." 

Yet when one mentions Britten's name, an awful lot of people still think of his life-partner, his collaborator, his inspiration. Moreover, Pears's interpretations of those roles are easily available. An interested listener can compare and contrast any modern tenor with the original, which has to be daunting. 

It says a lot for Mark Padmore that he is not found wanting. More than a decade ago, when his solo career was beginning, he was quite relaxed about his performances and his voice. Now his delivery is tighter, more considered. And his power of expression, the English tenor's great strength, is more focused. Anthony Tommasini got it dead right in a recent review of Padmore's recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and Nocturne. His voice is in the Pears mold, but it has a more penetrating intensity, says the New York Times critic. "He is a more high-charged performer than Pears, while still elegant and alluring." 

Britten's centenary offers a tenor of Padmore's stature a host of opportunities. In 2013, a punishing schedule has seen him in London, Paris, Munich, Dresden and Stockholm. He has performed the Holy Sonnets, Winter Words and the War Requiem, as well as the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Spring Symphony and the less well-known Six Hölderlin Fragments (Op. 61), in addition to Captain Vere at Glyndebourne.

Padmore has some competition. More than a hundred productions of Britten operas are scheduled this year, from Peter Grimes in Aldeburgh and Aspen to The Turn of the Screw in Sao Paolo and Saarbrucken — not forgetting the Met's tribute, this autumn's Midsummer Night's Dream, with Kathleen Kim as Tytania and Iestyn Davies as Oberon.

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As the Evangelist in the St. John Passion at ENO, 2000
© Henrietta Butler/ArenaPAL 2013

Our fascination with Britten extends beyond the music. His relationship with Pears and his well-documented (and generally unrequited) attraction to adolescent youths have intrigued biographers and gossipmongers for decades. They discuss the questionable relationships between men and boys that figure in Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd and shake their heads over imagined parallels between Britten and Aschenbach in the final opera, an adaptation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice

The centenary biographies dwell on Britten's private life, each searching for that killer revelation. Much more serious is the reaction to the music. More than ever in his centenary year, critics accuse Britten of being second-rate, too obvious — a charge that is often leveled at the work of his friend E. M. Forster, who collaborated on the libretto of Billy Budd. They echo Elisabeth Lutyens's devastating forty-year-old verdict that Britten's operas are "the product of a talented schoolboy…. Each repeated hearing yields less."

Padmore acknowledges the problem. Britten has become something of a national treasure, he says, and the fact that he wrote music to be enjoyed, and didn't seek difficulty, makes him seem "uncool" compared with more challenging twentieth-century figures. "People get sick of lovely Benji." But if we see him as some kind of Wizard of Oz, with no substance behind the façade, says the tenor, we'll be the losers by it. Britten's work is filled with subtleties and subversive moments, ambiguities and ambivalence. There is "an undertone of hard messages," couched in language that "speaks to us at a subconscious level. Britten," concludes Padmore, "was an absolutely great composer." 

Edith Sitwell, whose poems Britten set to music, gave a perceptive assessment of the emotional charge released from a good performance when she wrote, after the premiere of the War Requiem, "I am not a person who ever really cries…. On this occasion, the tears were blood."

If anyone needs confirmation that Britten offers emotional depth and nuanced ambiguities, let them listen to Mark Padmore. The intensity and, yes, the intelligence that this most English of English tenors brings to one of the twentieth century's greatest English composers has the power to move the most cynical heart. 

In the Medieval Hall, under the beech boughs and the high rafters, the last of Donne's Holy Sonnets ends in a funeral march and a major chord of hope. "Death, thou shalt die," sings Padmore, defiant. There is one of those stunned silences you sometimes hear at concerts when an audience is struggling to come back to itself. Then the applause erupts. 

Britten is not easy listening. Nor is Mark Padmore. There is a depth, a passion, an undertone of hard messages. The tears are blood. spacer

ADRIAN TINNISWOOD is a British historian whose interests range from Britten to seventeenth-century Puritanism. His latest book, The Rainborowes: One Family's Quest to Build a New England, is published this month.

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