Many vocal recitals spotlight the voice itself, a particular instrument’s inherent timbral qualities. Sunday’s Gardner Museum concert by the steadfastly thoughtful British tenor Mark Padmore, joined by the equally inquisitive pianist Jonathan Biss, instead focused on how the voice can be used, to structure music, illuminate it, even sell it.
Padmore, fresh off a New York run as the Evangelist in the Berlin Philharmonic’s acclaimed, Peter Sellars-staged version of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” has a heady, fine-grained, and flexible tenor, with versatility to follow his flights of disciplined curiosity. For Robert Schumann’s Op. 24 “Liederkreis,” Padmore assigned Heinrich Heine’s poems of love and (mostly) loss discrete voices, conversationally understated to heroically defiant. Biss contrasted pearly clarity with off-balance rubato and carefully broken chords: a brittle shimmer. As in “Dichterliebe,” Schumann’s other Heine cycle, the finale (“Mit Myrthen und Rosen”) seems resigned, accepting, but anguish keeps breaking through; Padmore evoked those compulsions by reprising his entire cast of vocal characters, old emotions boiling back to the surface.
Schumann’s “Sechs Gedichte und Requiem,” Op. 90, to texts by Nikolaus Lenau and, for the finale, Leberecht Blücher Dreves, are more discreet, more narratively measured. Padmore and Biss opted for controlled elegance, a poignancy of restraint. Only in the penultimate “Der schwere Abend” — which, significantly, has a bleak, Heine-like final turn — and the closing “Requiem” did the sound grow to more forceful grandeur.
Padmore lavished his entire toolbox on Michael Tippett’s 1943 cantata “Boyhood’s End,” a memory-of-childhood text by English naturalist W.H. Hudson turned into a frame-filling, deep-focus whelm of nature. From lean straight-tone to lush vibrato, from full-throated ringing to gliding falsetto, Padmore unleashed color after color, matching the music’s athletic, virtuosic evocation of kaleidoscopic sensation. Biss likewise impressively handled a piano part that seems to toss off notes in exuberant fistfuls.
Introducing Gabriel Fauré’s Op. 61 “La Bonne Chanson,” to poems by Paul Verlaine, Padmore joked that the fourth song’s title, “J’allais par les chemins perfides” (“I was going down treacherous roads”) could have been Fauré’s mantra, given the piece’s labyrinthine harmonic language. But the duo forestalled disorientation with confidence, Padmore’s singing poised and polished, Biss’s phrasing emphasizing the music’s flow instead of its sometimes startling syntactical shifts. The performance harnessed Fauré’s flux into an ineffably smooth current.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri