By his own admission, Mark Padmore is “not the kind of singer who thinks about my voice all the time,” he said in a recent interview. Which is not to say that Padmore — a British tenor who performs with pianist Jonathan Biss at the Gardner Museum on Sunday — doesn’t sing well; his airy and exquisitely supple tone is a sonic delight. But the mechanics of producing beautiful sound have never been at the root of his artistry.
What makes Padmore special is instead a quality that he refers to more than once during a conversation as “being in the moment”: an expressive intensity that seeks to revitalize a relationship with a piece of music — both his own and an audience’s — without artifice, and without drawing attention to himself.
“What I’ve tried to do, kind of with everything, is to just be in that moment of really hearing everything for the first time,” he said by phone from New York. “It is actually a huge act of listening and concentration, moment by moment. My voice for this is absolutely at the service of putting across the text.”
The “this” he was referring to was Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which he was in New York to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic, in a staging by director Peter Sellars that has become a landmark in visionary programming since its 2010 debut. Sellars’s version — a “ritualization,” as he calls it — is both abstract and charged with meaning, retelling the story of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion in a way that connects its ancient roots to a contemporary sense of existential urgency.
Padmore has sung the Evangelist’s role hundreds of times, in both the “St. Matthew” and “St. John” Passions. DVDs of those productions — “Matthew” released in 2012 and “John” just last month — provide potent evidence of Padmore’s ability to transcend the limits of objective narration. In the “St. Matthew Passion,” the Evangelist becomes the visual center, drawing to himself the characters’ sorrow and scorn as he lies on a coffin-like box in the center of the stage. In the “St. John Passion,” he stares with sad disbelief at the chorus’s hunger for Jesus’ crucifixion. Throughout both works, his piercing blue eyes could tell the story on their own.
Performing Bach in this way exacts a substantial effort, Padmore explained. “I don’t have any time off in these performances,” he said. “I simply have to follow and be there and be participating, because I think that helps the audience to do the same. If I take time out, then the audience can also relax and allow themselves to just sort of listen to beautiful playing. But if I’m there, really attentive, then I think there’s a kind of a contract that we make: The audience has to do the same.
“I’ve very rarely encountered someone who speaks about the theology or about the meaning of the text,” he said of Sellars. “And I believe that, whatever your religious belief or no religious belief, it’s a piece that should get under your skin. You should not just be able to listen to it and say, this is a beautiful piece of music.”
The program for Padmore’s Gardner recital divides neatly into two halves. The singer first worked with Biss during the latter’s “Schumann: Under the Influence” project, and this time Biss was anxious to do Schumann’s “Sechs Gedichte und Requiem.” As it’s a late and rather tortured work, it seemed natural to pair it with the composer’s early but also anguished “Liederkreis,” Op. 24. After the “agony” comes the “ecstasy” half of the concert, with Fauré’s “La Bonne Chanson” and Michael Tippett’s “Boyhood’s End.”
The Tippett is a rarity, and Padmore noted that the composer has largely been eclipsed by his rough contemporary, Benjamin Britten, even though Tippett’s music has a Bohemian roughness quite alien to that of his more famous compatriot.
“I believe [Tippett] has a sort of imaginative energy which is actually very different from Britten and has a sort of wildness about him, which is wonderfully liberating. Britten is often quite very beautifully composed and very thoughtful and very inventive and brilliantly professional. And sometimes it can be a little bit safe or a little too beautifully crafted.”
At one point, Padmore explained that part of what makes the Sellars “ritualizations” of the Passions so successful is their radical ability to strip away a listener’s previous encounters with those pieces, urging them to experience the music without any prehistory. Likewise, Padmore’s ambition, regardless of the piece he is performing, is to help audiences shed preconceptions and allow them to encounter a work afresh.
“One of the problems with classical music repertoire in general is that we tend to know it, often from a favorite recording,” he explained. “And then there’s a danger that people will listen to this music as almost a sort of aide-memoire in performance, and just sort of say, ‘It sounds like the recording I love,’ or, ‘It’s slightly different and a bit annoying.’ But it’s always in relation to memory. And I think in a way what this performance tries to do is to make it something where you forget all of that, you actually live it for the first time.”