Wolfgang Holzmair & Imogen Cooper: Hugo Wolf

Mörike Liederbuch: Auf einer Wanderung; Der Tambour; Denk’es o Seele!; Der Gärtner; Auf eine Christblume II; Der Feuerreiter; Peregrina I; Peregrina II; Um Mitternacht; Jägerlied; Schlafendes Jesuskind; Frage und Antwort; Fussreise; In der Frühe; Im Frühling; Lied eines Verliebten; Lebe wohl; An die Geliebte; Nimmersatte Liebe; Elfenlied; Gebet; An den Schlaf; Er ists; Zur Warnung; Bei einer Trauung; Begegnung

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone) & Imogen Cooper (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 19 February, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903)Wolfgang Holzmair first came to London to sing Lieder nearly twenty years ago. Patrons of the Wigmore Hall for a couple of years had a feeling of privileged ownership of the singer when he gave several recitals of the highest quality with the Swiss pianist Gerard Wyss as his partner. The baritone’s combination of smooth fluid tone, heady and confident in the upper register, with enthralling dramatic interpretation, was our little secret, treasured and appreciated until, inevitably, he spread his wings to become an international artist. Recordings started to trickle out, on minority labels to begin with, then with regularity and more intensive marketing after the signing of a Philips contract and the establishment of his partnership with Imogen Cooper.

Attending this recital after an extended period of absence from contact with the singer I was fearful that there could have been some vocal deterioration. I need not have worried: There was nothing that suggested ageing (Holzmair is now 55) and this demanding programme of twenty-six diverse songs from Hugo Wolf’s “Mörike Liederbuch” found his voice moving with suppleness around and between the registers.

Wolfgang Holzmair. Photograph: Pelléas ArtistsHolzmair treated us to some delightful and musically rewarding moments, some gloriously floated high notes, for example, and some consummate soft singing. The repeat of the opening lines in ‘Schlafendes Jesuskind’ was daringly assigned a pppp dynamic, while in ‘Im Frühling’ the enchanting stillness of the poet’s surroundings was palpable in Holzmair’s withdrawn singing. The quixotic changes within these settings were also faithfully reproduced. In ‘Lied eines Verliebten’ his ff at “Hell ist mein Aug” dramatically subsided into pp within a couple of bars. Even more swiftly in ‘Lebe wohl’ did the hushed concentration of the mention of the word “farewell” turn into venomous resentment of the suffering that partings had caused him.

At his best on this evening Holzmair was not afraid to exploit the sheer beauty of tone which the voice still commands. In ‘Der Gärtner’ there may be disguised erotic innuendo in the text, as Richard Stokes argued in his illuminating programme note, but the music is uncomplicated and invites a guileless account, which it received here from both performers. ‘Auf eine Christblume II’ was delivered with transparent lightness, backed by Cooper’s delicate touch in the tiny melodic shapes which comprise the accompaniment. She was also impressive in the chromatic circlings of ‘Peregrina II’ and played the part of protagonist in ‘Lied eines Verliebten’, where the left-hand performs several upward surges as the poet speaks of being a fisherman and then fights for its life in the postlude.

Holzmair’s interpretations employed a wide range of artistry, complemented by Cooper’s plainer, less precocious treatment of the piano-writing. Her playing was unerringly balanced in terms of mass but eschewed the singer’s extremes of physical flamboyance. The spirit of each of these diverse songs was vividly transmitted. The languorous atmosphere of ‘Um Mitternacht’ was the product of a judiciously chosen tempo, the very soft yet verbally precise delivery of the vocal line and the drowsy protraction of the concluding words “Vom Tage, vom heute gewesenen Tage”.

Both singer and pianist were at home also in the humorous songs. The mock-wedding in ‘Bei einer Trauung’ was a perfect miniature: Cooper’s funereal chords and stiff turns backed Holzmair’s deadpan, through-gritted-teeth delivery of the text. Every ounce of fun was extracted from ‘Zur Warnung’: The baritone adopted a croaky, breathy voice for the poet on the morning after the night before and Cooper caught just the right tone for the dance to which Wolf sets the doggerel proposed by the muse for the hung-over poet. In contrast the piety of the hymn-like ‘Gebet’ was conveyed with total sincerity by both musicians.

Imogen Cooper‘Der Feuerreiter’ was a triumph for the partnership. In this song extremes were ventured and survived. The power of the piano in the passage picturing the devil gloating over his ally and victim was as great as I have ever heard it sound. The singer, who does not have the volume to play with of some past interpreters, made up for this deficiency with operatic-scale gestures, then came into his own with an almost inaudible whisper when recounting how the mysterious corpse dissolved into ash. How the audience must have been tempted to disobey managerial instructions not to applaud. The musicians themselves left a long pregnant pause before continuing.

Regrettably there was an area of this performance which vitiated much of the rest: Holzmair’s extraordinarily mannered use of his body. Of course many of these songs are subjective and one can understand that he wanted to communicate intimately with his audience, as if alone in a room with a single listener. Sometimes the confidentiality of utterance was entirely convincing, in the last song ‘Begegnung’ for example. Equally the acting out of postludes can be a vital part of communicating the experience of a song: the ecstasy he conveyed during the final bars of ‘Er ists’ represented a welcome completion of the poet’s joy at the arrival of spring.

Too often, however, individual effects drew attention to themselves in a self-conscious way. Often we were confronted by a body eccentrically bent forward, sometimes even stooping. Eyes were frequently either closed or cast downwards; one was reminded of Karajan when conducting. Most distracting of all was his hands, which were constantly mobile. This was a symphony for two hands. Sometimes they would be clasped together, or stretched forward, and sometimes fingertips would gently touch. On other occasions the left-hand was placed out of sight behind the back while the right made a precision gesture or cut through the air in a dismissive chopping movement reminiscent of Tony Blair. Long notes were drawn out with the hand or rhythms underlined with beating motions. A prayer gesture at the end of ‘In der Frühe’ seemed legitimate, yet elsewhere the exaggerated movements were merely empty camp.

The microphones were in position to record this recital for the Wigmore Live label. Listeners to that will have only the aural aspect of the performance. I hope that the single encore, ‘Selbstgeständnis’, will find its way onto the release and that Holzmair will abandon the preciosity of his platform manner.

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