Early in the exploration of period instruments one hapless performer tried playing a Mozart piano concerto on a fortepiano at the Barbican. All we could hear was a faint, toneless tinkling in the distance — akin to Thomas Beecham’s put-down of the harpsichord as sounding like “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”.
It is no surprise that the fortepiano has failed to make much headway in today’s large concert halls. Wigmore Hall, though, is another matter and this recital by tenor Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout, playing a copy of a fortepiano from 1824 by Conrad Graf, showed the delights that might be in store.
Even at Wigmore Hall there are times when a grand piano sounds too much for a singer. “Try closing the lid”, one wants to whisper up to the overenthusiastic accompanist. Maybe Bezuidenhout’s fortepiano did not give him the range of colours that a modern piano would, but its volume was ideal — always present, never insubstantial. Even when Schubert comes up with one of his piano parts based on chains of repeated chords the accompaniment sounded light and lucid.
As in their recordings together, Padmore and Bezuidenhout focused on the early period of German song. A couple of Haydn’s songs in English, more imaginative that he is usually given credit for, were bright-eyed and alert. Schubert’s long “Viola” to a saccharine poem about flowers in the spring (did Schubert really have an affair with its poet, as the programme note hinted?) held the attention through its near 15 minutes. The fortepiano’s opening chords created magic out of nothing there.
For Padmore, the partnership is an opportunity to sing in a lighter style than would work with a piano. Sometimes the voice fluted mere wisps of tone, though the effect was not overused. Beethoven’s “Ein Selbstgespräch” ended with an insouciant pay-off, like the flick of a wrist. Best were the closing four late Schubert songs to poems by Seidl, where emotional depth was communicated with a lightly-spoken ease. The encore, Schubert’s “Die Taubenpost” (another Seidl song), rippled a near-heavenly warmth in the accompaniment. With due respect to Padmore, this was the fortepiano’s evening.
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