There was wonder and magic Wednesday night in Philly when The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented British tenor Mark Padmore and American pianist Jonathan Biss in a recital devoted to the songs of Schumann, Tippett, and Fauré.

The intimacy of the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, the buoyant intensity of Padmore, the subtle virtuosity of Bliss, the sympathy of their musical collaboration, their communication with the audience, the concert of music and poetry all combined to create, in short, an artistic zenarama.

Padmore’s voice is enchanting. and somewhat addictive. It reminds me of a nice cup of Darjeeling tea: not too sweet, not too astringent; interesting yet uncomplicated. Padmore was forthright in communicating both music and text, which immediately established a positive rapport with the stalwart Philadelphia audience.

Let’s face it, Liederabends can be rather intimidating to many of us. Too many of them are crammed down American audiences’ throats with highbrow, high Art, seriousness. But last night’s recital was a tête-à-tête, a cozy chat. No gilt. No glitter. Just a heart-to-heart, unadorned.

The first half of the program was devoted to the songs of Robert Schumann. Opening the recital, Mark Padmore deftly conveyed the many moods of Schumann’s love-sick song cycle Liederkreis, Op. 24. Next came the less well-known Sechs Gedichte von Nikolaus Lenau und Requiem, Op. 90, a grouping of songs rarely performed together.

A more mature reflection on love than the Liederkreis, these songs muse upon the “Kommen und Scheiden”, the arrival and parting of love. Yet, these love songs end not treacly remorse but rather fragile optimisim: a blacksmith’s hope for beloved horse’s return, a herder’s song which echoes in one’s memory, a secret lament expecting understanding, faith in a transcendent bliss. These songs were all bewitchingly conveyed by Padmore and Biss.

After intermission, the audience was introduced to a curiosity: Boyhood’s End, English composer Michael Tippett‘s cantata for tenor and piano based on text by William Henry Hudson.  I always approach Tippet with trepidation. However, this piece is early Tippett (1943), written for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, and is quite accessible.

Boyhood’s End is a celebration of the senses filtered through the prism of one’s memory: “to rise each morning and look out on the sky, to listen in a trance of delight to the wild notes of the golden plover, to climb trees and put my hands in the deep hot nest of the Bienteveo and feel the hot eggs.”

The poet wants only “to keep what I have.”  the recollection of boyhood’s end. After all, as Evelyn Waugh told us in Brideshead Revisited, the only thing we possess certainly is the past. Tippett’s opus wowed this reviewer. Exquisitely excrutiatingly difficult music for both singer and pianist was brought off with aplomb by Padmore and Biss, whose collaboration reached its zenith of the evening. They—almost—made it look easy.

After the might of Tippett, Gabriel Fauré’s song cycle La bonne chanson might have seemed a bit light-weight. Padmore’s forthright style, however, brought a winning sincerity to poet Paul Verlaine’s direct proclamations of love while Biss gave depth to Fauré’s treacherously pathed music. The overall effect was both charismatic and charming.

For an encore, Padmore and Biss performed Schubert’s “Ständchen,” a perfect ending to a near perfect evening. The audience removed itself in humbled silence. No rustle of silk and the diamond garter. Just love, unadorned.

Photo by Marco Borgrevve