Friday, February 27, 2009

Alice Tully follies

The newly reopened Alice Tully Hall has many kinks to work out: the frustratingly slow and late entry procedure, that painful electronic chime at intermission, the insufficient exit doors, etc. And while the outside looks nicer and a cafe is welcome (though, of course, it's overpriced and set to close each evening before operas end), some of the physical decisions were unfortunate: the sumo-wrestler-spaced urinals (squeezing a reasonable number in would've helped with the lines), the bumps on the rear stage wall that make it appear to have a skin condition, etc. But the seating has not much been changed, and it's a much better space than the Rose Theater.

In any event, one of the programs kicking off this week's hall reopening festivities was Wednesday's all-Schubert recital by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Imogen Cooper. Cooper began with the great sonata in A (D959), and after a break accompanied Padmore in the familiar song-cycle "Die Schöne Müllerin".

Cooper's solo portion was a frustrating listen, perhaps intentionally so. She played the first two movements in about as dry, disconnected, and deliberate a manner as one could imagine, squelching any sense of coherence or forward motion. The waltz of the third-movement scherzo wasn't dragged, but the dryness remained -- particularly in the trio. Nor did Cooper squash the lovely opening melody of the finale -- nor its restatements -- but the rest of the movement found her back in her initial manner. Overall ascetic deliberateness might have made some sense as contrast to real rhythmic exhilaration in the third-movement waltz and piece-concluding presto coda, but absent these latter it was just monochrome. Cooper also suffered from more finger fumbles than I'd expected.

Her accompaniment to Padmore showed she can play out Schubert's livelier impulses. She did tend to overpower him, but I'm not sure that was her fault. Perhaps the balance would have been better without the lid up.

Padmore himself is, within his vocal limitations, entirely admirable. But I'm not quite sure these limitations can be ignored. The first third of the cycle found him overpowered by both piano and the cycle itself, as he struggled to make an impression. He has a light voice, very light and heady on top, and without ideal focus (which was slow in coming) his very prominent sibilants were more telling than the actual musical line -- which disappeared into the piano in softer singing. His voice eventually found its footing with the more declamatory "Ungeduld", and despite a misbehaving hearing aid in the audience, Padmore soon after had them in the spell of Schubert's hapless protagonist and his Romantic-pantheistic entanglement with the brook and the miller girl. Padmore's concentration and earnest communication were, on the whole, both effective and impressive, but I couldn't help but wonder if a less taxed, more full and fully-colored voice might have unlocked more of the songs' possibilities.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.