Winterreise – Holzmair & Cooper (11 June)

Winterreise, D911

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone) &
Imogen Cooper (piano)

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 11 June, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Wolfgang Holzmair is a seasoned exponent of introspection, as one heard in this performance of Winterreise that he and Imogen Cooper gave. This was not the anger of a man railing against the world and all therein but an internal bitterness, sadness, dejection gnawing at the inner thoughts. It was almost as if Holzmair’s traveller was reluctant to share his feeling of hopelessness, of a despondency that had no outlet, no remedy – despondency without end. Holzmair created a remoteness from the audience that paradoxically communicated every thought.

We members of that audience should not have been listening: we were eavesdropping, whether to the wistful reminiscing about the linden tree, sung by Holzmair as if to himself until the blowing of the wind in verse five brought a harder sound from singer and piano. Had we offered our help, this particular traveller would probably have rejected our concern, lost in a world whose walls were impenetrable. Imogen Cooper produced in these introspective passages a lightness of touch, though not of spirit, that truly suggested that she was accompanying the singer on his journey.

Occasionally the bitterness would penetrate the barrier of introspection as though it could no longer be contained, and the voice would take on a harshness, a more open sound, as in “Du stürmische Morgen”. If the desolation experienced in “Der greise Kopf” was virtually tangible, a variation on loneliness comes with “Einsamkeit”: the loneliness of being in, but not part of, a crowd, as everyone passes by, withholding friendly glance and welcoming hand.

In all that he sang, Holzmair introduced varied responses and nuances, rather like W.B Yeats’s “the night and the light and the half-light”, and singer and pianist together brought out the contrast of “And when the roosters crowed, my heart awoke” in “Frühlingstraum”. Throughout the cycle one heard Holzmair using a subdued, concentrated tone, occasionally rising to a securely placed and focused head-voice, or then, deliberately clashing, he would lean on the tone, flattening the vowels to make harsh the sound.

The intensity reached its culmination in “Das Wirtshaus”, palpable, overwhelming, self-destructive, borne on a firm mezza voce and sung with telling legato. It was almost too personal to be described barely as a compelling piece of singing, but that is just what it was.

Holzmair’s voice is one of shades rather than basic primary colours, on the grey side instead of being envelopingly refulgent. It is how he uses it that sustains one’s interest. For the final song, “Der Leiermann”, the half-voice was reduced even further, the colour withdrawn: the hopelessness was complete, the journey over. An enthralling evening.

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