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Mahler  Lieder:  Wolfgang Holzmair (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano). Up School, Westminster School, London 4.2.2011 (JPr)

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


Those who have read a reasonable number of my reviews will know that, given the choice of voice types, I tend towards those that ‘play to the gallery’ such as tenors, sopranos and dramatic mezzos. However, it is baritones that seem to dominate the world of Lieder singing because of the musical sensitivity of their range that seems ideal for performance of songs of – often unrequited – love and loss. Over the years I have been led to believe the Austrian, Wolfgang Holzmair, is one of the best; indeed my wife and I, after listening to one of his CDs, have always wanted to be present at one his recitals. That was many – many – years ago and for some reason we never got to hear him until now. It promised to be an intriguing recital as Holzmair is touring a programme of Mahler Lieder to celebrate the anniversary years of 2010 and 2011. Sadly expectations were not to be fulfilled and in my opinion - for what you may believe it is worth – we left it too late to hear him and I wish I could have enjoyed the evening more.

Westminster School was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1560. This concert took place in the elegant hall of Up School – that was less school hall, more guildhall. It seems that the hall has been the venue for an occasional series of such recitals over recent years but it was unknown to me until I was invited on this occasion. However many do seem to know about it because it was almost ‘standing room only’ by the time it began. These events are arranged by the distinguished musicologist, Richard Stokes, who was responsible for the 14-page photocopied information booklet. One word of advice – if I may – it is silly to produce such an unwieldy document and often allot an entire page to a single short song and then admonish the audience at the interval for making noise when turning over the pages!

Wolfgang Holzmair arrived on the platform dressed in a grey suit that made him look like the head teacher about to take morning assembly and launched into a musical programme of Mahler songs full of vivid imagery and alternately full of humour, nostalgia, love, longing, melancholy, despair, farewell or bereavement; often set against sounds of nature or given a military theme. It was a pity that Holzmair’s highly mannered stage personality never really communicated much difference between any one song and the next. Often he sang with eyes closed, made distracting stabbing gestures with pointed fingers or held his hands together as if in prayer. I longed for him to stand still, open his eyes and use them to show what he was singing about through more facial expression. It is all a matter of taste, no doubt, and I will write no more about this part of his performance.

I will also reserve complete judgement about Holzmair’s voice because I wonder whether he was recovering from illness, as he appeared and sounded older than his advertised 59 years. There is more freedom at the top of his voice and he resorted to a very eloquent falsetto at times. The very emotive ‘In meinem Lieben, in meinen Lied’ at the end of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen showed what he was once capable of. However, lower down there was just a little too much gravel. What concerned me was how dry and colourless his voice often sounded and how easily he was undone by faster music, and notably Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (one of the Wayfarer songs) ended up sounding more like Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’ than something by Mahler. This song was given an appropriate, thrusting accompaniment by Joseph Middleton, playing a rather unresponsive instrument, but he risked losing touch with his singer. Along with Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! from the Rücker-Lieder these were the low points of this recital and the best moments were Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht, the Wayfarer’s song of unrequited love, Urlicht, where the introspection employed for every song was actually most appropriate, and the appealing short encore of Starke Einbildungskraft.

Joseph Middleton, who is already established as an outstanding accompanist of some distinction, showed his burgeoning reputation is fully deserved. He would seem to have a flawless technique and provided Wolfgang Holzmair with nuanced support that was alert to his veteran singer's every whim. He probably could be accused of being too respectful to him at times and while there is the necessity for the piano to provide a solid foundation to the Lieder it has its own significant role too. There was not enough of the marching soldiers, the Alphorn, the drummer-boy or bees’ humming brought out from the music. Like Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, Mahler fuses the poetic and dramatic elements of the poetry to the music. I urge Joseph Middleton to listen to how Mahler plays Ging heut’ Morgan über’s Feld on the recent Preiser CD release of some of the piano rolls. There is much more rhythmic flexibility and a real sense that the Wayfarer is out and about on his journey. There is a real element of the operatic in these songs that most singers and accompanists ignore at their peril – the usual artifice of the art song does Mahler a disservice.

Jim Pritchard

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