Room to breathe

The Middle Temple Hall could become London's venue of choice for lieder.

Mark Padmore, Julius Drake & Richard Watkins
Middle Temple Hall, 7.30pm Thursday 19 November, 2010

Generously equipped with large-scale concert halls, London is strikingly lacking when it comes to spaces for lieder. The Wigmore Hall (while acoustically blessed) is too deep for real intimacy, Cadogan Hall too sprawling and the Purcell Room too rarely used for this repertoire. Predating them all and putting their purpose-built structures to shame, the Middle Temple Hall is a revelation. With pianist-in-residence Julius Drake joined by tenor Mark Padmore in this gem of a space, the latest concert in the Temple Song series had all the elements for a superb evening of music. All that is, except the joy.

With a world premiere of Roxanna Panufnik's miniature song-cycle The Generation of Love framed by lieder from Schubert and Beethoven, the programme had a clear sense of architecture. Add in Beethoven's cycle An die ferne Geliebte and his Sonata for horn and piano however and it became dangerously overloaded, straining both the audience's attention and Padmore's upper register.

Suffering from the start, it was evident that Padmore was ailing. His trademark floated top notes were gripped and increasingly flat as the evening progressed, despite evident effort on his part. Musicianship and diction were as sensitive as ever, but with vocal issues so audible it was hard to see past technique and into the narratives he and Drake were crafting.

Claimed as the first real song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte broods on love and separation, aspiring perpetually toward a relationship that remains unfulfilled. Padmore can squeeze and spin a line from nothing (as evidenced later in the Panufnik), and Beethoven's long, outreaching phrases flowed freely. The inward character of "Wo die Berge so blau" and "Nimm sie hin denn diese Lieder" was well-judged, their understatement tempered with a tender simplicity in contrast to the rather rough excesses of the earlier "Neue Liebe, neues Leben".

Hindered by the piano's bright tone, Drake rivalled rather than supported Padmore in this repertoire, pushing the straining singer to risky dynamic levels and clouding the fragile precision of mezza voce passages. Balance issues dissolved however in the Schubert, where the supportive pianistic textures drew some of Drake's most delicate playing. Star among these latter songs was the extraordinary epic-in-miniature "Des Fischers Liebesgluck". With its rigid strophic form, the song's challenge is sustaining a sense of direction and progression through its meditative repetitions. While defeated by the exposed octave leaps in the latter part of the verse, Padmore's narrative commitment and sense of pacing were unerring, guiding us through the fisherman's tale with the intelligence of his interpretation.

At the centre of the evening's music was The Generation of Love, a new cyle of just three songs from British composer Roxana Panufnik. Setting Shakespeare sonnets for piano, tenor and horn, the work traces the progress of a relationship from infatuation to ironic familiarity and ultimately parting. Characterised by bitonal harmonies and edgy sonorities for both voice and horn (played gamely by Richard Watkins), the songs seemed an exercise in musical unbeauty, assaulting the ear with disjunct lines and quivering semitone clashes. Balance issues inherent to the writing saw the horn become unduly dominant, crushing both Padmore and Drake underfoot in the outer songs.

Most successful was Panufnik's take on "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", styled as a wayward, Brittenesque cabaret song, complete with laconic commentary from the horn as musical compere. Elsewhere text and music seemed barely on speaking terms, with little to distinguish the early romance from the lovers' parting save some rather crassly comedic horn textures in the latter. For a composer capable of the minutely calibrated vocal blends of the Westminster Mass it was uncharacteristically blunt writing, blotting the poetry it should have been illuminating.

Although far from the recital its performers might have delivered, this misfire of concert from Padmore, Drake and Watkins did suggest the intimate potential of this unusual performing space, a potential hopefully to be fulfilled in the coming year. With Sarah Connolly, James Gilchrist and Jacques Imbrailo all joining Julius Drake for Temple Song recitals in 2011, the Middle Temple Hall has the goods - if only it will use them - to become London's venue of choice for lieder.

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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.