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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, D911
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone); Andreas Haefliger (piano)
rec.7-9 December 2009, Neumarkt in der Oberplatz, Reitstadel
German texts included
CAPRICCIO C 5149 [73:36]

I understand that this is Wolfgang Holzmair’s second recording of Winterreise. An earlier one, made in 1994, I think, with Imogen Cooper is currently available in what looks like a tempting four-disc set in the Decca Originals series (4784272). I’ve not heard that reading. In this new version he’s partnered by Andreas Haefliger who is the son of another distinguished singer, Ernst Haefliger and a fine pianist in his own right. I say this version is ‘new’ but in fact it was recorded four years ago and I’m surprised it has taken so long to issue it.

There are innumerable versions of Schubert’s second great Müller song cycle in the catalogue - reviews of forty-four of them are listed in our Masterwork Index - and it would take a braver person than me to suggest a ‘best buy’. However, what I think I can safely say is that this is a version that merits the very close attention of collectors.

You may wonder at the start whether this is going to be an interpretation that digs deep. The pace that Holzmair and Haefliger adopt is nice and steady; unlike some partnerships they don’t make ‘Gute Nacht’ a world-weary trudge through the frozen terrain and the ‘nice and steady’ impression is heightened by the singer’s smooth legato and easily produced line. However, this is a reading that draws the listener in progressively.

There’s a great deal to admire about both the singing and the pianism as this performance unfolds. For one thing there are many small but telling tempo modifications for expressive purposes. Though most of these are unmarked in the score - or at least in my Edition Peters copy - they all seem valid interpretative decisions to me and I find them convincing. Haefliger’s playing is consistently interesting and bespeaks a very careful consideration of each song and the way the piano part relates to and illuminates the words. Just as convincing - and satisfying - is the wide range of vocal colouring deployed by Holzmair. In particular I like the way he sometimes hardens his tone quite deliberately, momentarily forsaking the rounded, firm tone that is his stock in trade here. One particularly telling example of this is the delivery of ‘Der greise Kopf’. Another occurs in the very last bar that he sings in ‘Das Wirtshaus’.

Earlier in that song my ear was particularly caught by the soft high note on the word ‘matt’ at the top of the phrase ‘bin matt zum Niedersinken’. This is an excellent example of the way he controls both his voice and the emotions throughout this performance. Earlier, in ‘Die Krähe’, listen to the way he colours such phrases as ‘Krähe, wunderliches Tier’; this is an example of an expert singer, and one deeply immersed in Schubertian interpretation, at work - and there are many other such instances.

As for the emotional side of the cycle, I had the impression that the performance begins in quite a moderate vein. This, I’m sure, is deliberate; Holzmair and Haefliger understand that this isn’t a short journey. It seems to me that the reading becomes darker with ‘Wasserflut’, which is delivered in a very expressive way. In ‘Auf den Flusse’ Haefliger starts to ratchet up the tension as the song unfolds. When we get to ‘Frühlingstraum’ I like the way that the artists differentiate strongly - as they should - between the apparently relaxed, serenade-like sections and the slower, more dramatic passages. I was a little less convinced by their way with ‘Irrlicht’. This is well sung and played but seems to lack a sense of mystery.

I have heard performances of the last few incomparable songs that have wrung more out of the music in emotional terms, demonstrating more overt intensity. Holzmair avoids undue histrionics but I found him not just convincing but also compelling. One reason for this is that the songs are so very well sung in technical terms. Indeed, this is of a piece with Holzmair’s overall approach. Were this a live performance at which one were physically present I have a suspicion there wouldn’t be much physical gesticulation in evidence. Holzmair uses his voice and the range of colours at his disposal to do the acting for him - and good for him.

A few words are in order about the presentation if this release. Capriccio earn brownie points for the quality of the sound which is clear and pleasing and which allows us to hear both performers in excellent balance with each other. However, several of those points must be docked firstly for offering only the German text with no translations and secondly for printing the booklet with such a small typeface. I’m sure Gerhard Persché’s note is an interesting one but I’m afraid I gave up long before reaching the end so difficult was it to read.

As I said at the outset it’s really not possible to single out a single version of Winterreise as ‘the best’; for s start, how does one define ‘best’ in this context? However, this is a very satisfying, deeply considered and involving account of Schubert’s great cycle. It held my attention from first note to last and deserves to be ranked with the finest recordings.

John Quinn 

Masterwork Index: Winterreise