Sunday 17 November 2013

Wolfgang Holzmair Farewell Concert – Schubert, 16 November 2013

Wigmore Hall

Auf Heliopolis II, Philoktet, Der entsühnte Orest, Atys, Fahrt zum Hades, Freiwilliges Versinken, Der zürnenden Diana, Am Strome, Wie Ulfru fischt, Auf der Donau, Der Schiffer, Einsamkeit, Die Sternennächte, Trost, Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, Auflösung
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Imogen Cooper (piano)

Twenty-four years after his 1989 Wigmore Hall recital debut with Gérard Wyss, Wolfgang bade farewell – at least as a recitalist, though other appearances are not ruled out – to the venue with a programme of Schubert songs to texts by Johann Mayrhofer. (Richard Stokes’s otherwise exemplary programme note fell strangely silent upon the relationship between Schubert and Mayrhofer, surely a matter for discussion in a programme such as this, saying no more than that they ‘shared lodgings’. Maynard Solomon’s article, ‘Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini’, published in the year of Holzmair’s Wigmore debut, might at least have been mentioned, if only to dispute its suggestions, likewise Susan Youens’s response. But let us leave that on one side for the moment.) It was only fitting that Holzmair’s recital partner should be Imogen Cooper, their series of performances and recordings having been rightly celebrated for much of the period in which Holzmair has been performing – and, as Holzmair pointed out, in a modest response to the Hall’s closing presentation, he has been professionally performing Lieder for a period half as long again as that which he has in London: quite a career, by any standards. It was a splendidly non-crowd-pleasing programme, one in which attention to text, both musical and verbal, was exemplary throughout, and a moving opportunity once again to hear both that unmistakeably Austrian way with words and that unmistakeable voice, in which a baritone’s range is so tinged with the timbre of a silvery tenor that one has to remind oneself that Holzmair is not actually a tenor.

The second Heliopolis song opened the programme: a performance that seemed to begin in medias res, no warming up here. Both Holzmair and Cooper imparted a vigour, even a fire, that impressed in itself, fitted Mayrhofer’s wish that passions seething in brazen harmony (‘Laß die Leidenschaften sausen im metallenen Accord’), and augured well for what was to come. Even in a slow-moving song such as Philoktet, both musicians knew how to impart a winning, echt-Schubertian lilt, for instance to Holzmair’s ‘Unterhalt’, relief from the loneliness of Philoctetes without his bow. Atys was a particular highlight of the first group, a performance possessed of a particularly fine sense of narrative. The ghostliness with which the quotation in the final stanza was delivered chilled, and yet developed into a fuller bitterness as that stanza progressed, a fine preparation for the dark harmonies offered by the rock-solid harmonic foundation for Cooper’s journey to Hades in the following song. Ghostliness and lilt found themselves in perfect equipoise in Der zürnenden Diana.

It seemed fitting that in, Am Strome, which opened the second group of songs, the beauty of youth was recaptured in both voice and, implicitly by recollection, in the text: a heart-rending moment that led, in the song’s second and third stanzas, into the voice of experience, again both in terms of work and performance. A group of water-based songs – by the river, fishing, on the Danube, and the boatman – relished yet never exaggerated Schubert’s essentially Romantic yet city-bound love for the natural world. A darker side was, of course, always present, yet never forbiddingly so: ‘Untergang’, the destruction with which Auf der Donau closed, was desolate enough, yet neither Holzmair nor Cooper felt any need to exaggerate. The song spoke, or seemed to speak, for itself, art concealing art.

The second half opened with the extraordinary Einsamkeit, almost cantata-like, not only in its length but also its shifting moods, a fine challenge, expertly navigated, for a farewell recital. Cooper’s voicing of Schubert’s chords was an object lesson in the art, harmonic rhythm thereby propelling the musical argument. ‘Gib mir das Glück der Geselligkeit!’ Likewise the quasi-orchestral quality to the piano part upon the suggestion of riding into battle: ‘Reitet in die Schlacht hinein.’ Give me the good fortune of conviviality: whatever form(s), twists, and turns, the historical relationship of Schubert and Mayrhofer may have taken, one knew here that it was something not to be taken lightly, and yet at the same time not unduly to be laboured. Sociability offered its own message for the recital as a whole: as it were, a gathering of friends, a Schubertiade, united in the ‘Liebe’ of which the poet spoke. The following starry nights (Die Sternennächte) were simply lovely – or, better lieblich, as Webern, one of Schubert’s most avid successors, once marked one of his truly Viennese piano pieces. Cooper’s exquisite horn calls in Trost and straining towards Liszt in the following Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren offered excellent examples of picturesque ‘moments’ that were yet integrated into a convincing whole. The patent sincerity of both musicians shone through especially strongly in the latter song’s final stanza, parting the ocean’s waves, before the Auflösung of the final song, which followed without a break. ‘… störe nimmer die süßen ætherischen Chöre!’ Well, who in his right mind would wish to disturb those sweet, æthereal choirs? On either side of the presentation we were treated to an encore, the second, Wolf’s Mörike Fußreise both welcome and tantalising: like the recital as a whole.