Monday, 30 November 2009

Holzmair/Haefliger - Winterreise, 29 November 2009

Wigmore Hall

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Andreas Haefliger (piano)

This was the third and, most likely, last of my three Winterreisen this year, following Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, and Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach, also at the Wigmore Hall. All three were very different performances, and not necessarily in ways I might have expected. Quasthoff and Barenboim, insofar as I could discern, given a supremely objectionable audience, proved the most Classical in outlook. Goerne and Eschenbach, not without their intimations of the twentieth century, might nevertheless be considered the most Romantic in their approach. To my surprise, it was the highly dramatic performance of Wolfgang Holzmair and Andreas Haefliger that took us deepest into the expressionist realm.

Holzmair’s general approach to the cycle is quite unlike any other I can recall. From the first words of Gute Nacht, one heard a directness of speech akin to poetry reading, the speech rhythms of Wilhelm Müller’s verse replicated in a fashion one might expect more of Mussorgsky or Janáček than Schubert. I might be tempted to call the performance operatic, were that term not so sullied with inappropriate Italianate connotations. Musico-dramatic then, for Wagner more than once came to mind: roles as diverse as Amfortas, Mime, and Tannhäuser. Perhaps it is the lightness of Holzmair’s baritone helps one think in terms of tenor roles; at any rate, this is a very different voice from that of Quasthoff or Goerne. Holzmair is not at all an artist to subordinate drama to musical beauty. Some might feel affronted that he does quite the opposite, and there is a degree of loss, but no single performance can be all-encompassing. He is unafraid to make sounds which, considered in themselves, might be ugly: again Wagner and indeed Schoenberg are not so far off the mark here. It also seems to me – and I wonder if I am being merely fanciful – that there is something specifically Austrian to Holzmair’s reading; certain vowels sound far more Viennese than hochdeutsch. Haefliger, moreover, proved anything but a reticent partner. At times, his part sounded well-nigh orchestral: more so, interestingly, than that of the conductor Barenboim.

This winter journey, then, was bleak from the onset of Haefliger’s insistent tread to Gute Nacht. Moments of repose, of beauty even, were rare. Risks were taken, for insistence the extreme rubato in Die Wetterfahne, suggestive of the possibility that the weather-vane might turn any which way. The wind, after all, ‘plays with hearts inside’. Occasionally such risks did not quite pay off; for instance, there were moments in Gefrorne Tränen and Rückblick when the performers were not quite together. Yet the dramatic end was always paramount, never more so than in the frozen rage of the final stanza to Erstarrung, or the freezing wind from voice and piano in Der Lindenbaum. A truly terrifying crescendo upon the words, ‘Und der weiche Schness zerrint,’ ensured that even the possibility of a warmer wind brought no consolation. Again, this might well be considered one-sided, and is far from the only path to follow, but it worked.

Frühlingstraum, a rare opportunity for Schubert’s aching beauty to manifest itself, was almost unbearable, the return to the major mode for ‘Ich träumte von Lieb’ und Liebe’ heartbreaking. In his harmonic preparation, Haefliger knew precisely where he was taking us – and why. Der greise Kopf was very slow – but again, it worked. In the piano prelude to Letzte Hoffnung, there was an almost pointillistic, Webern-like quality to be heard: no surprise, if one consults the score, for it even looks like late Brahms or Webern. A modernistic, fragmentary quality informed both of the first two stanzas, rendering all the more shocking Holzmair’s desperate lyricism when considering that the leaf might fall to the ground. A couple of songs on, and if you found Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau hectoring, you would certainly have felt the same of Holzmair’s Der stürmische Morgen. Yet this was a particular conception of a particular song. In Täuschung, Haefliger once again conjured up a fleeting image of beauty – Täuschung (delusion) indeed – seemingly derived from, or at least related to, the piano impromptus in its rhythmic and harmonic pointing.

This could only be a momentary distraction, however, from the ineffable sadness characterising Der Wegweiser. Here, Holzmair exhibited a prayer-like calm, beseeching someone or something in the second stanza: ‘I have, after all, done no wrong...’. Yet what does that someone or something care about that? The spareness of the piano writing in the final stanza sounded closer to late Liszt than I have ever heard before: chilling. After that, the sad dignity of the chords in Das Wirtshaus was almost more than I could take, though Holzmair managed to ratchet up the tension still further, with a bare honesty of expression far removed from conventional beauty at the end of the song. Der Leiermann brought a direct, deathly simplicity, which chilled to the bone. Rage – and what rage there had been! – was gone. As ever, Holzmair brought one so close to the verse itself, music almost negating itself. I was terrified. Even the inevitable return – had they ever gone away? – of the coughers could not quite disrupt the awestruck silence that ensued.