Padmore / Vignoles / Navarra Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Monday 02 May 2011
After 20 years of knocking about with the best in the business, the tenor Mark Padmore has some distinguished people to call on for a concert billed as "Mark Padmore and Friends".
He also has a brilliant recipe. His penchant for programmes based on a "conversation between pieces" led him to pair Vaughan Williams and Ravel, partly because of their shared tastes and partly because of their friendship and the traumas of the First World War, in which both were medics on the front line.
Their relationship started when Vaughan Williams, feeling his music had become "lumpy and stodgy" and in need of some "French polish", took lessons from Ravel in Paris; Ravel later declared that the Englishman was the only pupil he had "who did not end up sounding like Ravel". Both men, says Padmore, tried to escape from the Teutonic idea of music as argument, and to create the sonic equivalent of impressionism.
Opening with Ravel's Cinq mélodies populaires grècques, Padmore and his pianist, Roger Vignoles, demonstrated just how effectively the French composer achieved that aim. While the piano wove delicate modal patterns, the voice soared gracefully above: each song, with its hint of folk cadences, was a perfectly-realised miniature. Vaughan Williams's ripostes – "The New Ghost", "The Sky Above the Roof" and his extraordinary "Procris" and "Menelaus" – were infinitely more interesting in terms of harmony and texture than his orchestral works; these songs could compare with Britten's.
And what performances they got. Vignoles's artistry as an accompanist is second to none, supporting and subtly enhancing his singer's effects; Padmore was on top form. It was less the beauty of his sound than its burning intensity, the sense of emotion stripped bare. When he bifurcated into two voices in "Is my team ploughing?", the character speaking from the grave was a will-o'the-wisp, while the speaker from the land of the living answered with rolling red-bloodedness.
The other performers were the Navarra Quartet, who delivered Ravel's String Quartet in F with transparent freshness. All in all, two hours in a sound-world of exceptional refinement and purity.
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