Der Winterabend, D938
Robert Holl (bass-baritone) & Roger Vignoles (piano)
Recorded 9-11 January 2008 at All Saints, East Finchley, London
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: October 2008
CD No: HYPERION CDA67657
Duration: 63 minutes
“Schwanengesang” is an artificial compilation created by the publisher Haslinger after Schubert’s death, in which settings of poems by Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine are spatchcocked together, with the last song to be written by the composer tacked onto the end, creating a collection ostensibly comparable to the two Wilhelm Müller cycles. The end product lacks either Schubert’s own endorsement or musical logic.
Another aesthetic objection to the ‘work’ as it stands is the perceived gulf in quality between the poets concerned: Heine, the towering genius, serious in content, uncompromisingly subjective and progressive in style, versus Rellstab, who survives in modern consciousness only through the prism of his collaboration with Schubert and whose poetry is often dismissed as slight, conventional and emotionally bland. In pursuit of this view, some singers have extracted the Heine settings and performed them separately in the recital room, in combination with songs of equal weight from other sources. Nevertheless, recordings of the complete ‘cycle’ have been common from the start of the LP era, perhaps suggesting that Haslinger was commercially astute in assembling the product as he did.
In a crowded field, this offering from Robert Holl and Roger Vignoles justifies itself not only in terms of the singer’s wish to preserve his own interpretation but also because it personifies a less polarised view of the quality of both poetic sources and their musical embodiment. Vignoles, in his accompanying booklet note, which are well up to the Graham Johnson level of perception and illumination, is a highly persuasive advocate of the Rellstab songs as having previously underplayed similarities with the Heine ones. Furthermore his characteristically instructive analysis of the music exposes subtleties in Schubert’s writing which support this view.
The conventional judgements on the Rellstab settings are confounded by the performance. Nature is prominent as background and as a source of imagery but it provides little consolation. The apparent pastoral radiance of ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ is undermined by the nagging questions that conclude each verse, themselves pointed up by the sour flattened note in the vocal part.
I recall Holl in a live “Winterreise” some years ago accompanying his vocal performance with melodramatic posturing but here he certainly does not go in for interpretative overkill. Perhaps at the age of 61 he is not so tightly in command of his vocal resources. Certainly he can be rough and gritty when pressing on the upper register, the wobble occasionally reminiscent of Hans Hotter in his later years. Otherwise he has to be admired. He encompasses the incidental grace-notes, shakes and melismas deftly throughout the “Schwanengesang” settings, so it is no surprise to find him equally adroit with the multiple semiquaver pattern so characteristic of the phrase-ends in “Der Winterabend”. The intervals of a minor tenth in “Liebesbotschaft” can only be managed by recourse to falsetto but there are other instances where genuine head voice is employed to exquisite effect, such as at the words “nieder” and “Perle” in ‘Das Fischermädchen’. There are rhythmic subtleties too: a slight tenuto is applied to the words just mentioned, while hardly perceptible ritardandos restore magic to the slightly hackneyed “Liebesbotschaft”.
I have recently described Holl as a true bass but he presents himself as a bass-baritone. I stand corrected, though I still feel that he deliberately withholds the bass resonance that his voice possesses in the lower reaches. He uses the lower, but not lowest transpositions and the use of this subdued voice helps him to be light on his feet; the clear quality that he cultivates for the higher notes contributes much to the consistent ethos of this recording.
In commentary about Lieder-interpretation singers have for two generations been measured on a scale whose parameters have been spontaneous versus studied, musical satisfaction versus verbal illustration. Holl offers satisfaction to supporters of both causes. This distinctive interpretation of the work, more homogeneous than most, underlines its genius and ability to sustain diverse approaches.
Texts and an English translation are supplied. This is another success for Hyperion’s enterprise in the art-song repertoire.