VOCALIST OF THE YEAR


The 2016 Honorees

By Heidi Waleson

His performances push listeners deeper, challenging them to engage with music that they think they know well. He is currently the world’s reigning Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions, and in fall 2015 he performed the three great Schubert song cycles at Lincoln Center.

Mark Padmore, one of the most theatrically arresting singers working today, is rarely heard in opera houses, so his Captain Vere in the Glyndebourne Opera production of Britten’s Billy Budd, which toured to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, was an extraordinary event. In just one line, “Oh, what have I done?”, sung in a silvery yet probing tenor, he exposed the terrible anguish of a haunted man, endlessly tormented by his long-ago failure to do the right thing. As Padmore laid bare the captain’s inner turbulence through music and text, it was startlingly evident that the opera is really all about Vere. 

Padmore, 54, brings that kind of intensity and immediacy to everything he sings, which these days is often the Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions, solo pieces with orchestra, and song recitals. He makes occasional forays into contemporary opera, such as last spring’s Aldeburgh Festival double bill by Harrison Birtwistle, written for him. Padmore anchored the ground-breaking Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars staging of the St. Matthew, singing and acting a suffering Evangelist who puts a human face on a sacrament not only by telling the story but by enacting the ordeal of Jesus: an ordinary man wrongfully arrested, betrayed, deserted by his friends, tortured, and executed. His sensitivity to nuance is equally piercing on a smaller scale: When he sings Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht” with the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout on their Harmonia Mundi recording, the overwhelming sentiment that comes through is not the usual fury and resentment, but rather, pity. 

When Padmore sings, communication, not showing off how beautiful his voice can be, drives his music-making. He was an ideal collaborator for Sellars, who wanted people to be shocked by the Judas kiss in the St. Matthew. They were. “It’s not an event that can be passed over,” Padmore says now. “It means something every time.” His performances push listeners deeper, challenging them to engage with music that they think they know well. “Great music needs to disturb and upset, to make people think,” the tenor insists. “It should be listened to from the edge of your seat, not while you’re reclining and thinking about holidays.”

Padmore has followed an unconventional career path. After early training as a clarinetist, he discovered his voice when he went to Cambridge as a choral scholar, singing multiple services a week with the renowned King’s College Choir. (His fellow choristers included baritones Christopher Purves and Gerald Finley, both of whom also went on to distinguished solo careers.)

The lightness of his multi-hued instrument kept him out of the so-called “money roles” in opera—no Verdi, Puccini, or Wagner for him. But that proved to be an opportunity, because Padmore built his professional life with musicians who were shaking up the status quo: the historical performance pioneers, whose work was all about finding new meaning in the supposedly familiar. Padmore became a leading light with mavericks like William Christie, who introduced him to French baroque opera (one of his roles was Jason opposite Lorraine Hunt in Charpentier’s Medée) and Philippe Herreweghe, with whom he recorded numerous Bach cantatas and the larger works. A life-changing moment was singing in the choir for Roger Norrington’s “Beethoven Experience” concerts. “It felt revolutionary, shocking, outrageous,” Padmore recalls. “Norrington found humor in Beethoven, which had been lost for decades.” 

The questioning attitude that he absorbed in those years has stayed with him, even though now, paradoxically, it sometimes sends him in very different directions from early-music orthodoxy. Padmore has sung over 150 performances of the St. Matthew Passion (though he hates the idea of keeping count), and he embarks on it each time with an open mind, whether it is Rattle and the modern-instrument Berlin Philharmonic, John Eliot Gardiner’s period band, or a conductorless chamber-music style project with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. “I get as much from doing it with Berlin as with the OAE, as long as it’s done with great intention, real commitment, and real intelligence. There isn’t an ultimate Matthew Passion. We can’t go back to Leipzig or the Thomaskirche.” For Padmore, the hours and weeks that he spends rehearsing the work are the most important part. “You get to know that piece, and it shows you how endlessly rich it is. You can never be done with it.”

Similarly, Padmore’s exploration of the song repertoire reflects his response to his environment—the hall, the audience, the pianist. The great Schubert and Schumann cycles, cornerstones of his repertoire, are different every time. “I’m sensitive to everything at every moment, and I want it to be of its moment,” he says. Each of his pianist collaborators—Bezuidenhout, Paul Lewis, Roger Vignoles, Till Fellner—brings his own qualities. “Lieder is a partnership. It’s not about a starry voice being accompanied by someone who stands behind them.” Padmore also loves how pianos affect him, and his experience with historical performance opens him up to their possibilities. “Steinway has an extraordinary monopoly on the piano world—it’s like everybody is driving Rolls Royces. In Schubert’s or Beethoven’s time, each piano would have had its own distinct personality. Steinways tend to be even across the registers, whereas the fortepiano has a bassoon bass, a more speaking middle, a silvery, tinkly top. Those registers make a difference to the sound world you are working in, and the singing changes each time.”

After that Glyndebourne Vere, one can only hope that some opera house of the right size will ask Padmore to take on other tormented Britten figures, like Peter Grimes. Still, not being tied down by long opera house rehearsal periods has given him the opportunity to pursue unusual projects, like the St. Matthew Passion with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, for which he directed the rehearsals. How does such a massive work come together without a conductor? “We breathe together. You have to rehearse more.” Indeed, Padmore finds the whole “maestro” idea limiting. “Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of great figures of early music, once said that the only person he called maestro was his Italian barber. The music-making is so much richer when we are all taking responsibility.” •

Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal.

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