Robert Holl & Roger Vignoles

Schwanengesang, D957
Der Winterabend, D938
Die Taubenpost, D965a

Robert Holl (bass-baritone) & Roger Vignoles (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 24 October, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

In the field of Lieder, Robert Holl suffers from the problem of being a bass-baritone, that peculiar cross-breed whose range can be two octaves plus – as opposed to the usual male one and a half – but who are obliged to make substantial downward transpositions to make the tessitura comfortable. This can diminish key contrasts, thereby making many songs sound tonally and emotionally one-dimensional, as Hans Hotter did with “Winterreise” and “Schwanengesang”. So the prospect of hearing this type of voice in lieder is perhaps mixed.

Holl is now 59, and since I last heard him in lieder there has been a marked deterioration in the voice. At full throttle its power has diminished, while the mezza voce and head-voice have become breathy and ill-defined. Intonation at piano and below is suspect, there is an occasional lack of flexibility and the three registers are now not completely unified. Yet, this recital contained many memorable moments and left a lasting impression.

Holl and Vignoles presented the songs in the following order: the Rellstab settings, followed by “Der Winterabend” and “Die Taubenpost”, and then the Heine settings. Given that the cycle was cobbled together after Schubert’s death, this is not a problem; on her fine account for Deutsche Grammophon Brigitte Fassbaender does something similar.

In the first four songs there was a sense that Holl was not totally involved, despite a fine start to ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ and a suitably hollow ending. ‘Ständchen’ was marginally too slow to be a serenade. But ‘Abschied’ brought rhythmic subtlety throughout and superb tonal painting and weight in the last stanza. Much the same could be said of the last three songs prior to the interval, with a fine sense of motion in ‘Herbst’, quiet resolution at the beginning of ‘Aufenhalt’ and the taking wing of the last stanza ‘In der Ferne’. In every song Holl used a very wide range of pianissimo tones, which often brought exceptional variety of expression. Throughout, Vignoles was superb, bringing every line and nuance to life with quiet authority.

After the break there were again some leisurely tempos, particularly in ‘Die Taubenpost’ and ‘Das Fischermädchen’. But both songs had rhythmic variety and moments of great focus and beauty. ‘Am Meer’ was suitably hymn-like, ‘Der Doppelgänger’ was brooding and intense and ‘Der Atlas’ was operatic in its force and attack; and all with Vignoles demonstrating time and again why he is one of the finest Schubert accompanists around.

There were two encores, “Nachtviolen” and “Mutter Erde”, both of which received rapt performances. Overall, this was a superb recital, but I was left with a sense of regret for not having heard Holl essay these masterpieces at an earlier stage of his career.

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