Wolfgang Holzmair & Roger Vignoles

Clara Schumann
Geheimes Flüstern, Op.23/3
Sie liebten sich beide, Op.13/2
Das ist ein Tag, Op.23/5
O Lust, o Lust, Op.23/6
Robert Schumann
Liederkreis, Op.24
Zwölf Gedichte von Justinus Kerner, Op.35

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone) & Roger Vignoles (piano)

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 20 March, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

One of the world’s finest Lieder-singers joined one of the world’s top accompanists for a recital of songs by both Clara and Robert Schumann before an appreciative audience. The six songs by Clara began the proceedings, and immediately one was held by the response of both singer and pianist.

In the final stanza of “Liebeszauber” both voice and piano were restrained as the poet’s praise of the nightingale’s singing becomes a lament: “Alas! whatever since I’ve sung was just its echo faint”. This was but one example of the reaction of the artists to the music and words. Even more effective, because longer lasting, was the hushed response both artists brought to “Geheimes Flüstern” (Soft, secret whispers). It was as if one had chanced upon a private dialogue, continued in the next song, “Sie Liebten ich beide” (They once loved each other), two sad verses on undeclared love. The group ended contrastingly with “O Lust, o Lust” (Oh joy, oh joy), a more outgoing piece, as its title suggests.

If one is looking for a large, resounding baritone voice, one will not turn to Wolfgang Holzmair. His voice, indeed, is limited in range, not strong at either end and rather dry but contains a wealth of varied hues. His approach is intelligent, intense and cerebral but still reaching both the listener’s head and heart, though some have thought him too self-involved. I have always found him, in many recitals over the years, to hold my attention almost mesmerisingly. To have Roger Vignoles with him doubled the evening’s pleasure.

Robert Schumann’s contribution to the recital was the two cycles. Of the first collection entitled “Liederkreis”, Robert wrote to Clara: “The songs are my first to be printed, so do not criticise them too severly.” What a splendid collection it is. This is the set of Heine poems rather than the Eichendorff “Liederkreis”, Opus 39. As Richard Stokes pointed out in his typically instructive notes in the programme, Schumann’s “choice of texts bears witness to his profoundly despondent nature”. The Kerner settings are similarly melancholic.

Wolfgang Holzmair is especially communicative and searching in introspective songs, drawing out their sadness or bitterness, immersed in the words and feelings. In the “Liederkreis” are many expressions of unrequited love, not that Schumann’s love for Clara was unrequited, and in the year of composition, 1840, the two finally overcame the opposition of Clara’s father and were married. Holzmair and Vignoles combined well to capture the sadness of a song such as “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” (Lovely cradle of my sorrows). More power was injected into the very short “Anfangs wollt’ich fast verzagen”, with voice and piano treading more lightly in the final song, “Mit Myrten und Rosen”.

The second part of the recital was devoted to the Kerner songs. For some reason this cycle is less well known than others by Schumann. Roger Vignoles said that this was only the third time that he had played it in public. Graham Johnson has suggested that the writing for both voice and piano is difficult. That did not prevent Holzmair and Vignoles from giving a gripping interpretation, with many examples of hushed singing from the baritone. Very effective was their performance of “Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes” (To the wine glass of a departed friend), a fine song. The cycle concludes with what Richard Stokes nominates as “the bleakest end to any song cycle, excepting, perhaps, “Der Leiermann” from “Winterreise””. I would remove “perhaps”, but the point is made. So intense was the performance of the last two Kerner songs that one felt that one had not been breathing until the moment, after some seconds of silence, that well-deserved applause broke forth. The final song, “Alte Laute”, was spellbinding.

A single encore, Clara’s “Die stille Lotosblume”, Opus 13/6, brought a fascinating recital to a close.

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