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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Mendelssohn, Mahler, Elgar: Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Richard Hickox (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea 20.05.2006 (GPu)



This was an evening that began modestly, but went on to reach great heights.

Mendelssohn’s concert overture Fair Melusine (1833, revised 1835) belongs to the genre of the musical picturesque; its pleasures include an elegant clarinet theme for the tale’s ‘heroine’, some turbulent passages that yet contrive to remain altogether polite and, naturally enough, some well worked out development of its themes. It never rises above the merely pleasant – and it was pleasant enough as played by BBC NOW and Richard Hickox. This isn’t the greatest of Mendelssohn (a composer whose best I much admire) and the temptation to invest the music with too much significance was wisely resisted.

We moved into an entirely difficult musical league with Mahler’s five Rückert Lieder (1901-2). Wolfgang Holzmair’s performance was as compellingly beautiful and moving as anything I have heard in the concert hall for quite some time. Passionate and intelligent, in perfect control of his voice and yet creating the illusion of an almost abandoned lyricism, this was memorable and profoundly moving singing. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ carried immense conviction, its simple melodic line floated out over the sounds of Max Puttman’s orchestration of Mahler’s piano score, beautifully and attentively shaped by Hickox and the orchestra. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’, which Mahler scored for strings, single winds, horn and harp, prompted singing of great charm, with a well-calculated degree of mock-innocence that had a gentle humour about it. In ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!’, Holzmair’s delicacy of voice was beautifully complemented by the woodwinds. Here and elsewhere, Holzmair sang with a certainty of verbal understanding so richly perceptive that he revealed new meanings in the text. In my time, I have a heard a few concert performances, and listened to a good many recordings, of these Rückert songs; very rarely have I heard the dignified pain or the philosophical and religious contemplation of ‘Um Mitternacht’ performed so movingly, or with such intelligent power, free from all bluster, in the marvellous moments when the brass enter to give emphasis to the protagonist’s triumphant submissiveness: “Hab’ ich die Macht / in deine Hand gegeben”. It is a great moment and full justice was done to it in this performance. That beautiful song ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, rich in melodic ideas and a minor masterpiece of late Romantic orchestration, was given a performance which seemed to hold performers and audience alike in a kind of trance. Holzmair himself responded wonderfully both to the moments of anguish in the song and to its final spirit of quiet resignation, and the orchestral bars that close the piece were played with extraordinary delicacy and intimacy. This was, quite simply, glorious music-making.

It was always going to be difficult to match so remarkable and compelling a performance. It was greatly to the credit of both conductor and orchestra that the post-interval interpretation of Elgar’s First Symphony (1907-8) came close to doing so. The opening was every bit as full of both nobility and simplicity as Elgar asked. The cellos and later the brass) were important strengths in a richly argued and textured reading of the first movement, a reading which sustained momentum and tension throughout its considerable length. The pugnacious march early in the second movement was sharply contrasted with the ensuing enchantments of the lovely passages which Elgar said “should be played like something you hear down by the river”. For Elgar, any understanding of the human condition and of human possibilities was inseparable from a response to the natural world, a response that conditions much in the following adagio, in which Hickox let the long lines develop expressively and persuasively. Echoes of material from earlier in the symphony were allowed to speak for themselves, without being pointed-up over demonstratively, as is sometimes the case. The finale was played with real attack and power, though there were a few moments when precision was sacrificed to sheer fire. The closing affirmation of what Elgar referred to as “a massive hope in the future” was played with resounding energy and confidence.

I haven’t, I confess, always been an unqualified admirer of Richard Hickox. But this was a concert that left me wanting to sing his praises loudly. Above all, Holzmair’s literally breathtaking performance of the Rückert Lieder will stay long in my memory.

Glyn Pursglove




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