Robert Holl (baritone) & András Schiff (piano)
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 27 April, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
That rich, creosote voice is less secure nowadays, the grain coarser and the range narrower, but Robert Holl can still mesmerise when he performs “Winterreise”. The Wigmore Hall was packed with discerning listeners who could hear past the Dutch master’s fading vocal resources and appreciate the artistry of a singer who has been taking Schubert’s winter journey for decades, and who first recorded it more than thirty years ago. Despite the glut of performances of this great, bleak cycle that have been scheduled for this venue in 2011 (this was the second one in April alone, although we were now a world away from Ian Bostridge’s), Holl’s reading with András Schiff proved to be a special occasion.
There was an unsettling illusion at play as Holl’s gruff timbre and bluff, bearded presence essayed a cycle that is often interpreted as a young man’s tale. The 64-year-old singer – more bass-baritone than baritone, despite his billing – appeared instead to present the work as one of soliloquised remembrances. He jettisoned immediacy for distance and delivered the cycle as twenty-four sepia images that have haunted their owner since the days of his youth. Holl used his crumbling voice to evoke an old man’s memories, and the effect created by his melancholic reflection on things past was both original and moving. The singer’s tessitura has shrunk considerably in recent years (though it’s still resplendent in the mid-range) so he coped with Schubert’s high-lying passages by dramatising the notes – floating or nudging them rather than singing them in full voice – an effect that accentuated the sense of a troubled soul dreaming of the past as he drifts into old age.
After a brief discrepancy over tempo at the start of the opening ‘Gute Nacht’, the accord between singer and pianist was intense. They have performed this cycle together many times and their interplay was second nature; Schiff kept a steady eye on his partner throughout, and so easy was his touch that the notes appeared to leap from the keyboard onto his waiting fingers. If Schubert provided the canvas, then the piano was an artist’s palette and Schiff’s hands painted with vivid brushstrokes. The cock crowed rudely in ‘Frühlingstraum’; in ‘Die Post’ the posthorn sounded and the coach wheels spun urgently; in ‘Im Dorfe’ the village dogs growled and barked. As for the final setting, ‘Der Leiermann’, the organ-grinder’s melody sounded as if it were carried on the wind – across time, perhaps. It was a texture rather than a tune, the half-forgotten sound of a half-remembered past, and a fitting close to an extraordinary interpretation.