Des Knaben Wunderhorn (selection of nine songs)Winterlied
Hans und Grethe
Serenade aus Don Juan
Phantasie aus Don Juan
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Imogen Cooper (piano)
I can imagine that this would have been a recital, as the cliché has it, to divide opinion. Though I found it an enriching, enthralling experience, I could well imagine that some, many even, would have responded less warmly to Wolfgang Holzmair’s voice, which has become drier, than once it was, relatively lacking in tonal variety. For my part, I relished not only his keen verbal attention, not only his undeniably ‘acted’ approach, but also that inimitably Austrian way he has with the language, which simply seems so right here, leaving many peddlers – or should that be pedlars? – of Hochdeutsch standing. I doubt that anyone, however, could have entertained doubts concerning Imogen Cooper’s contribution. Rarely if ever have I heard Mahler’s piano parts sound so convincingly orchestral: not straining towards an unattainable ideal – well, not very much – as taking on the very hues not just of any orchestra, but Mahler’s. Such was certainly apparent from the very first of the Wunderhorn settings, ‘Ablösung im Sommer’.
Holzmair’s ‘Revelge’ revelled in almost cabaret-like fashion; Weill came to mind, performance somehow encompassing both Berlin and Vienna. A certain dryness of tone was more than offset by sheer communicative ability, poised somewhere between bitterness and sweetness, or rather combining the two. Cooper’s communication of Mahler’s underlying rhythms was every bit as impressive. Neither was afraid to make an ugly sound where necessary, the piano quite tumultuous before ‘Er schlägt die Trommel’. By contrast Schubertian lineage sounded very much to the fire from both artists in ‘Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz’. The piano proved as sardonic as the voice in ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt'. One actually relished the relative awkwardness in pianistic terms, especially some of the right-hand passages. Holzmair told the tale with an almost childish truculence, though of course, with Mahler, there is always an alienated sophistication to reassert itself too. Nothing is unmediated: the blessing and curse of modernity. Irony pertained too in ‘Trost im Unglück’, another vista opening up with the second character of the girl (Mädchen), but was it for real? The piano sounded almost Schoenberg-like in ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, but that is how Mahler’s writing should come across, perhaps especially in its piano version. Vocal defiance provoked resonances once more of Brecht-Weill, Wozzeck too. If ‘Das irdische Leben’ does not chill to the bone, something has gone terribly wrong; no fear of that here, though there were of course all sorts of other fears to experience. Detail both verbally and from the piano was exemplary. ‘Rheinlegendchen’ was suffused with melancholy, nostalgia for a typically Mahlerian golden age that never was – and we knew it. Its loss is of course none the less painful for that. ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ evoked similar feelings. Here I admit that I did feel the loss of a more beautiful voice – Fritz Wunderlich would have been ideal – or indeed the deeper tones of a more conventional baritone. (Holzmair often sounds closer to a tenor.)
The second half opened with echoes of Schubert and Schumann in Winterlied; both artists’ experience in the music of those composers really told. Cooper’s tone sounded close to Debussy in Frühlingsmorgen, which preceded a pervasive yet detailed (words and music) sadness in Erinnerung. Beautifully judged rubato helped the apparently naïve progress of Hans und Grethe. Serenade aus Don Juan was sweetly seductive through sheer vocal – and pianistic – intelligence; the following Phantasie proved similar in tone to Erinnerung. Urlicht was taken faster than one would be likely to hear it performed with an orchestra, but that makes sense. Crucially, it retained its quiet dignity, but sounded perhaps more Romantic, less Nietzschean. (I could not help but long for the rest of the Second Symphony.) Three Rückert songs completed the programme. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ displayed an admirable refusal to confound sentiment with sentimentality. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ offered itself as a companion to ‘Das irdische Leben’, Holzmair’s detailed verbal response suggestive of Wolf. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ was performed with straightforward, clear-eyed dignity. I was put in mind of Peter Schreier in Wolf. Yes, hand on heart, I should prefer the darker tones of, say, Hanno Müller-Brachmann here, but this moved and provoked nonetheless.