Wolfgang Holzmair & Andreas Haefliger at Wigmore Hall – Winterreise

Die Winterreise, D911

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone) & Andreas Haefliger (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 29 November, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Wolfgang Holzmair. Photograph: Pelléas ArtistsWolfgang Holzmair is now 57 and if the voice has lost some of its lustre, his interpretative art grows ever deeper. From the opening bars it was clear that something very special was about to unfold. Andreas Haefliger produced a beautiful but deeply melancholic atmosphere via the use of rubato, pedal, and dynamic and tempo variation, Holzmair matching him in every way. The voice is small, with a vibrato that on occasion came perilously close to a wobble in the first three songs, but has superb projection and a dazzling array of tonal shades; indeed you have to go back to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to find any true comparison. He also uses hand and facial gestures to emphasise points without them becoming mannerisms and he is not afraid to produce an ugly sound if that heightens the expressive force.

All of these traits were on display in ‘Gute Nacht’. In the first verse the word “gar” was highlighted, the tone lightened for the second stanza, and at “Herren Haus!” in the third the tone was almost snarling to depict the house-owner’s dogs and yet the verse’s last line was pure sweetness. And in the last verse there was a wonderful stream of legato tone and phrasing, with every note seamlessly joined to the next. By singing in this traditional – and superior – manner Holzmair places himself in the great Austro-German baritone Lieder tradition that has produced such giants as Schlusnus and Hüsch and he has nothing to fear from such comparisons.

In the next song ‘Die Wetterfahne’ there was a big ritardando at the end of the second line and in the rest of the song the dynamic shading was wonderful; while ‘Erstarrung’ was almost conversational. It is difficult to imagine anything more heart-rending than the sound that both artists produced at the start of ‘Der Lindenbaum’. Here there was pure legato with perfectly integrated p, pp and ppp dynamics and tonal shading. ‘Wasserflut’ was slow with a sense of vicious irony at the end of the second stanza. In ‘Auf dem Flusse’ the words “still” and “kalt” were drawn out and there was immense power in the final lines. In ‘Rückblick’, both artists produced finely sculpted melodic and rhythmic lines and patterns and the slowing for the last two words brought a moment of pure magic.

Andreas HaefligerBehind all of this invention there was an ever-increasing sense of loss and inner turmoil. Both artists understood what innigkeit means and everything grew naturally from this concept. So ‘Rast’ was slow but marvellously pedalled by Haefliger. ‘Frühlingstraum’ lilted along and at “Küssen” you heard the kiss. There was real anger in the last verse of ‘Einsamkeit’ and I have never heard ‘Die Post’ so individually and beguilingly phrased. At the end of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ Holzmair sang at ff with open tenor-like tone – a very dangerous thing to do if you are a baritone – but the expressive effect was overwhelming; while the staccato line in the piano was superbly contrasted the singer’s perfect legato span. And once again, behind every note there was a profound depth of feeling.

In the glorious four final songs both singer and pianist gave a masterclass in the art of Schubert interpretation. ‘Das Wirthaus’ was simply death walking and the power in the last verse was shattering. ‘Mut!’ brought immensely vivid word-painting, and in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ the tone was almost bleached, with a wonderfully expressive subito piano on the fifth line and a feeling of immense humanity was conveyed in the last two. Finally in ‘Der Leiermann’ there was nothing; all of the tonal shading and the hand and facial gestures were eliminated. Holzmair stood rigid, arms at his side and almost spoke the words in a monotone soft pianissimo. The silence at the end lasted for what seemed an eternity.

This was a performance in the grand tradition. A devastating, harrowing experience and the finest “Winterreise” I have heard live.

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