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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.