Unanimity of Mind and Spirit from Holzmair and Cooper at the Oxford Lieder Festival

24/10/2015

Oxford Lieder Festival – Clara & Robert Schumann, Frank Martin: Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Imogen Cooper (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 23.10.2015

Clara Schumann: Das ist ein Tag, der klingen mag, Op. 23 No.5

Sie liebten sich beide, Op 13 No.2

Der Mond kommt still gegangen, Op. 13 No.4

Volkslied

Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort, Op. 23 No.3

O Lust, o Lust, Op. 23 No.6

Frank Martin: Sechs Monologue aus ’Jedermann’

Robert Schumann: Zwölf Gedichte von Justinus Kerner, Op. 35

Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper make a formidable team, and so it was wonderful to see them back at the Oxford Lieder Festival (and in Cooper’s case for the first of a three-concert residency at this series). Holzmair was apparently suffering from a cold, but it did not greatly hinder his performance, except that the quality of his tone was somewhat loose and approximate at times. But it certainly did not hold him back in an impressively powerful delivery of some of the songs here.

It was an essential quality of his performances that it was not so much the inflections of individual words and phrases which made an effect (though expression was always immaculate) but the commanding sweep with which each song was interpreted, be it assertive or reticent. That notable power was expressed differently, according to whether he was projecting joy and wit (as in the first and last of the group by Clara Schumann, making for a cogent cycle of selections overall), tragedy, or fear – the latter especially in the Frank Martin cycle. He reserved more subtle tonal shadings for the private exchanges of emotion as between lovers in Sie liebten sich beide or man and nature in Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort. He also accomplished that comparatively rare phenomenon for a baritone, a smooth, unstrained tone in the upper register.

Martin’s Six Monologues from ‘Jedermann’ came from a play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal – a writer probably best known to music lovers not so much for his literary endeavours in his own right, but for his operatic collaborations with Richard Strauss. The play is about the allegorical journey of ‘Everyman’ in a Faustian fashion (at least in Goethe’s version) from human weakness and mortality, despair and terror, to resignation to death and redemption. The chosen monologues which Martin made from the play seemingly condense its narrative and themes into a briefer, logical trajectory. Much of it is declamatory – and was delivered as such by Holzmair – and in musical terms is composed in the style of a melodious recitative, surely drawing upon, and taking further, Wagner’s developments in word setting and Unendliche Melodie, albeit in the more limited form of song, rather than fully-fledged music drama.

Holzmair’s performance was consistently powerful again across the songs, but in variegated ways. The rhetorical questions of the first song Ist als zu End das Freudenmahl were hectoring, and in the following song (expressing the character’s fear of death) there was a defensive forcefulness in the illusory comfort the protagonist looks for in the treasures he seeks to take with him. That feat was transformed into weariness and regret by the time of Ja! Ich glaub: solches hat er vollbracht, and a resigned, settled mood for the last song. The music itself is strange and unsettling, but compelling; it reminds me, perhaps, of a more solid, Germanic refashioning of some aspects of Debussy’s style, most notably the other-worldly strains of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien.

Better known is Schumann’s cycle on poems by Justinus Kerner. It may be likened to Schubert’s Winterreise in its theme of disillusionment with humanity and despair, though the consolation to be found in nature is also one of Romanticism’s significant themes. It is interesting that one springboard to that response to nature in this cycle is the colour green (in Erstes Grün) which is similarly a cause for joy and grief (though in a different context) for the miller in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. As with the latter composer, Schumann’s music virtually elevates and redeems the vision of total despair implied by the words, and together Holzmair and Cooper gave a completely absorbing account of the dozen songs, taking a few of them towards the end more or less continuously to construct a devastating emotional atmosphere. They were visibly moved as they acknowledged the audience’s applause, as rightly and deservedly they might be, bearing witness to the unanimity of mind and spirit they invested in this programme. Throughout, Cooper’s accompanying on the piano would have been gripping to hear on its own, without the vocal part, as she traced the fluctuating moods and meanings of the words. But rather than stealing the musical limelight from Holzmair, they effected a sublime integration of their respective contributions, resulting in an equal musical partnership of mature, peerless distinction.

They returned to the Schumanns for one encore from each of them, offering another touching reminder of the latters’ musical and romantic partnership: first Clara’s Liebst du um Schönheit, Op.12 No.4, and Robert’s Mondnacht from the Liederkreis.

Curtis Rogers

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