If that seems like a highly subjective notion, there really was no other way to process Monday night’s appearance at the Perelman by pianist Jonathan Biss and tenor Mark Padmore -- the third and last Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert exploring the “late style” of various composers.
Together, they performed Schubert’s Schwanengesang, the group of 14 songs that pass before the listener like a series of multilayered J.M.W. Turner paintings. That these tonal landscapes are equally multilayered -- that each one can be about so many things -- is no great surprise. Padmore is himself a master of tone, texture, and light.
But as a longtime follower of Biss, I found his level of agitation with the Schubert Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959 profoundly disturbing -- and illuminating.
Start with the premise that bar lines and firm tempos need not exist. Take that level of treacherousness one step further into a sphere where any dramatic turn, from a tumble of notes to a grand pause, can spill out with an energy and tempo totally determined by its internal potential for drama. Now imagine all these devices in the service of the full despair-to-ecstasy spectrum, and you have an idea of Biss’ scope.
One did not have to agree with all of his choices to have felt the force. With such a fast tempo in the third movement, he seemed to reject the music's possible folk roots in the ländler. But Biss’ shaping of the second movement was one of those journeys in which your worst night terrors are thrillingly realized. He pressed the tempo, creating constant forward pressure. When all hell broke loose, the explosion was nearly symphonic. Afterward, he looked spent.
He drew on completely different sounds in the Schwanengesang. For the listener with her nose in the text, there were obvious connections to be made -- the way the piano becomes the whispering breezes, for instance, in the song “Far Away.” But there are complexities and paradoxes, here, too, moments when Schubert sharpens or contradicts these poems by Heine and others.
To do this, Padmore was a dozen different singers in one. When listeners speak of the generosity of a performer, part of that is about trust -- that the performer can take risks and expect the audience to understand that the emotional payoff makes everything else secondary. Padmore was there. The age of his voice changed from song to song. It grew stronger and weaker. It coiled up in tension for one stanza, and relaxed in the next.
The literal musical gestures suggested in the text -- a bird in flight, the sparkle of water in motion -- was lovely. The more vague evocations of atmosphere were even more powerful. It was portrait-painting in real time, a sensation no museumgoer will ever know.