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Robert and Clara Schumann – songs: Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 20.3.06 (AO)

Sporting his familiar sapphire blue tie, Wolfgang Holzmair seemed poised to give a recital of songs which are so closely associated with him that they are almost his trademark. His recital of Clara and Robert Schumann songs, with Imogen Cooper on the piano, is one of the classic choices. It is a wonderful performance, showing just how good Holzmair can be when inspired.

Clara Schumann’s true vocation was performance. She was a driven artist, who lived to play, rarely missing a chance to tour, even with a young family. Her songs were written at Robert’s behest, as tokens of love. They are pleasant pieces that shed light on their domestic happiness and need to be appreciated in that context. However, they do need to be sung with commitment. In his recording, Holzmair breathes life and vivacity into them with his sheer enthusiasm. Not so tonight, as something was strangely awry.

Liederkreis op 24 is one of the many works that poured from Robert Schumann in that glorious Liederjahr of 1840, when he and Clara at last were able to marry. It may have been a year of bliss, personally and creatively, but throughout the cycle runs a contrary undercurrent of anxiety. For example, Heine connects the throbbing of a lovers’ heart with the sound of a Zimmermann schlimm und arg hammering nails into a coffin: the noise stops the lover from sleeping, yet soon he will sleep forever. Schumann’s setting of the poem brings out a morbid, almost manic intensity. Perhaps Holzmair was taking the anxiety too much to heart. He knows this cycle so well that he has a good idea how he wants to sing it, but here seemed to be driven by forces unknown. He veered into overly dramatic emphases, word painting with too much force. Vignoles has a tendency to play too loudly, sometimes overpowering weaker singers. Tonight he wasn’t quite so loud as fast, pounding the notes out relentlessly, rather than listening to his singer. Holzmair could have used more sympathetic support.

Then, as if by magic, the cloud lifted. Holzmair was himself again. The Kerner songs swing from one emotion to another in rapid succession, and are by no means easy to carry off. Notoriously, Stirb’, Lieb’ und Freud’ depicts a dialogue between a girl and the Virgin Mary who doesn’t actually speak, but whose benevolent presence infuses the song through the piano part, this time subtly and beautifully played. Then it’s revealed that the narrator is the man who loves her but will lose her to the convent. Holzmair didn’t tempt fate by singing the girl’s words mezza voce but compensated for making her prayer sound suitably plaintive and meek. It brought out the parallel with the man’s prayer. There’s a parallel too between the two drinking songs. Wanderlied is a joyful farewell for a man embarking on an adventure. Glasses of wine are also raised in Auf der Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes, but the owner is dead. What the narrator sees in the glass when it’s filled “ist nicht Gewöhnlich zu nennen” (should not be mentioned to mortals). Schumann knew that Kerner was into the occult. Holzmair didn’t reach the spookier levels in this song as he has done in the past, but it was atmospheric enough. At the very end of the cycle, in Alte Laute, he returned to the plaintive, humble mood in which he sang the young nun’s voice. It was an interesting detail, showing his deep understanding of the cycle’s inner structure.

Anne Ozorio




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)