Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1847)
Mein Wagen rollet langsam, Op. 142/4 [2:58]
Es leuchtet meine Liebe, Op. 127/3 [1:54]
Der arme Peter, Op. 53/3 [4:30]
Abends am Strand, Op. 49/3 [2:49]
Die beiden Grenadieren, Op. 49/1 [4:37]
Liederkreis, Op. 39: In der Fremde [1:46]; Die Stille [1:21]; Mondnacht [3:49]
Aribert REIMANN (b. 1936)
Nachtstück (1966) [11:00]
Liederkreis, Op. 39: Wehmut [2:02]; Zwielicht [2:56]; Schöne Fremde [2:05]
Kerner-Lieder, Op. 35 [31:31]
Trost im Gesang, Op, 142/1 [2:58]
Sängers Trost, Op. 127/1 [2:04]
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone); Imogen Cooper (piano)
rec. live, 14 December 2010, Wigmore Hall, London. DDD
German texts and English translations included
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0063 [79:08]
The recital preserved on this CD was reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Colin Clarke. His notice mentions that an announcement was made at the start that Wolfgang Holzmair had been suffering with a throat infection which had put his ability to sing in some doubt.
As it happens, I’ve been listening to Holzmair quite a bit recently, reviewing a fine recording of Winterreise and an outstanding disc of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs (review). Those discs were made in 2009 and 2011 respectively and I think it’s worthy of note that this Wigmore Hall recital comes in between those two dates for anyone coming to this disc in isolation might wonder if Holzmair’s vocal powers were just starting to wane - he was fifty-eight, I think, at the time of this recital - but the subsequent Mahler disc indicates that such was not the case. In any case, everything is relative. There are occasions in this recital when Holzmair’s tone is not as round and full as we know it usually to be and some lower notes didn’t have quite the resonance of old - for instance in Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes, one of the Kerner Lieder. Yet against such frailties - if such they be - we must set the fact that we are demonstrably listening to a very fine, insightful Lieder singer: this disc has far more on the credit side of the ledger than on the negative.
The recital was given as part of Wigmore Hall’s celebration of the bicentenary of Schumann’s birth; indeed, it must have been one of the last events in those celebrations. The programme was thoughtfully devised, effectively as a triptych, the central panel of which consisted of a set of Eichendorff songs by Aribert Reimann flanked by some of Schumann’s settings of the same poet from Liederkreis, Op. 39.
The first panel of the triptych consisted of Heine settings. There was a slight feeling of Holzmair getting into his stride in the first couple of songs. In this group I particularly enjoyed Die beiden Grenadieren, perhaps because only recently I’d been relishing Holzmair’s performances of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings. This Schumann song seems to me to offer an uncanny premonition of some of Mahler’s settings of the militaristic poems in that collection. Holzmair was ready to suggest in his vocal colouring the rough and ready nature of soldiers - perhaps just a bit too rough and ready on this occasion? The poignant last few quiet piano chords was but one of many beautifully judged contributions to this programme by Imogen Cooper.
The second panel of the triptych juxtaposed Schumann with Reimann. Six of the twelve songs from the Op. 39 Liederkreis were selected though these did not appear in the order in which they are usually heard. The first trio of songs was well done: I admired the lightness of touch that both performers brought to Die Stille while Mondnacht, an eloquent song, received a beautiful performance. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the Reimann songs but I’m afraid that I found them completely unattractive and the juxtaposition of them with Schumann may make more sense to other listeners than it did to me. As so often seems to be the case with songs written in the second half of the twentieth century, the piano part did not appear to bear any relation to the vocal part - and that was cruelly apparent when Schumann’s songs offer such a seamless unity in this respect. Despite the evident skill of the performers I didn’t find this a rewarding or enjoyable listen and whilst the inclusion of these songs was intriguing I fear it seemed like an intrusion. I doubt I shall listen to this part of the disc again but others may well be better equipped to find something positive in these songs.
It was a relief to return to Schumann’s unforced lyricism and to music that, for me, offers a more congenial companionship with Eichendorff’s poetry in the remaining three excerpts from Liederkreis.
The third panel of Holzmair’s triptych consisted of a performance of the twelve settings of poems by the Swabian physician and philosopher, Justinius Kerner (1786-1862). In her very useful notes Hilary Finch says that Kerner had many ideas that were way ahead of his time and after training in medicine he ‘spent the rest of his life giving shelter and herbal remedies in his home to friends and colleagues going through bad times.’ Apparently Kerner’s poems had a big impact on Schumann when they were published in 1826 but he didn’t set any to music until 1840 when, at the prompting of Clara, he wrote these songs, his first major work after their marriage. The songs follow a logical sequence but Schumann referred to them not as a cycle but as a Lieder-Riehe - a ‘row of songs’. Hilary Finch says that these songs are his least well-known cycle and I don’t believe they’re recorded anything like as frequently as the other sets of songs though there is already another recording, by Roderick Williams, on this very label (review).
Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper made a good case for the Kerner-Lieder. The set contains a number of excellent songs. The second one, Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’! seems like a lovely, easeful song though there’s sadness under the surface. Holzmair sings it well though I’d have liked to hear more roundness of tone. Writing of the fourth sing, Erstes Grün, Hilary Finch says that the performance reveals ‘Holzmair’s mastery of the pacing and placing of each word, each phrase.’ That’s a fair verdict but one that could apply equally - with suitable adjustment to omit the reference to words - to Imogen Cooper’s playing. Three consecutive songs in the second half of the set, Stille Liebe, Frage and Stille Tränen, are inward-looking and reflective for the most part. I thought these songs received very eloquent readings. The final pair of songs, Wer machte dich so krank? and Alte Laute, share the same melodic material. Holzmair’s singing here becomes increasingly hushed and intense and Imogen Cooper is with him in every respect: there’s a great understanding between these two musicians, an understanding born of many years performing and recording together.
There are two encores; both are further Kerner settings, also dating from 1840. I particularly liked the winning, gently lilting Sängers Trost.
Perhaps this recital doesn’t represent Wolfgang Holzmair at his finest, for reasons outside his control. Nonetheless there is considerable pleasure to be had from this recital and it’s a joy to hear a singer and pianist in such evident accord. As a footnote, we may note that in November 2013 Holzmair gave his final Wigmore Hall recital, devoted to Schubert, with Imogen Cooper once again his partner (review). I do hope that in due course Wigmore Hall Live will be able to issue on disc that farewell to the hall by this distinguished singer.