Robert Holl and András Schiff in a fine lieder recital

Schumann, Brahms, and Schubert: Robert Holl (baritone), András Schiff (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 29.5.2011 (MB)

Schumann – Dichterliebe, op.48
Brahms – Vier ernste Gesänge, op.121
Schubert – Schwanengesang, D 957: Heine Lieder

 Having arrived relatively early at the Wigmore Hall, I heard from outside the very end of the artists’ final rehearsal. I was a little surprised to hear ‘Der Doppelgänger’, but thought it might have been prepared as an encore; I was still more surprised to hear a voice that was not Thomas Quasthoff’s. All was revealed when I collected my ticket from the box office: Quasthoff had been replaced at very short notice by Robert Holl, with a complete change of programme. Out went Strauss and Mahler; in came Schumann, Brahms, and Schubert. I mention this only really because what I had expected to hear lingered in my mind somewhat, so that I was perhaps more alert than usual to the Mahlerian presentiments in at least the songs by Schumann and Schubert. András Schiff remained the pianist.

Schumann’s Dichterliebe was performed with an excellent sense of a cyclical whole and of progression within that whole. Schiff announced himself immediately, in the prelude to ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, as a pianist rather than an ‘accompanist’; there can be few cases where that is more beneficial than in Schumann’s songs, the poetry at least as present in the piano part as in the verse, for which confirmation might be found in the pianist’s light-fingered response to ‘Und wüßten’s die Blumen’. Holl’s care with diction and the depth of his baritone likewise immediately announced an unusual dark (Mahlerian?) and almost Wolf-like text-based perspective on the cycle. There is something about his German that inevitably reminds one of his Dutch nationality: not only the greater care taken than one might expect from a German, but also occasional aspects of the pronunciation. Given the clarity, one arguably benefits as an audience member, never more so than in verse by Heine, whose bitter-sweet irony one may therefore readily savour to the full. ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ was accorded an agitated reading from both musicians, whilst ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ sounded properly stentorian, Schiff’s sharpness of grip upon the rhythm proving crucial, as had his telling, yet never attention-seeking, voice-leading in ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen’. A gestural quality that would inform much of Holl’s performance, both here and in the second half, was readily apparent in ‘Ich grolle nicht’. But this was not merely a performance in which baritone and pianist shone individually, far from it; Holl’s touching vocal delivery in ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’ was finely complemented by Schiff’s harmonic command, whilst the intensification of its concentrated emotional drama was pursued in tandem. There were occasions when Holl’s tone was somewhat less than burnished; it proved a little dry, for instance, in ‘Allnächtlich im Traume’. However, this could sometimes be put to good use, as for instance in the appropriately and surprisingly wan delivery of the final line of ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’: ”Du trauriger, blasser Mann’ (‘You sad, pale man’). The anger without hysteria of the concluding ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ was spot on, Schiff’s postlude as painfully beautiful as Heine’s words.

The Brahms songs continued, indeed intensified, the recital’s serious mood, though I felt that Holl’s performance did not quite plumb the metaphysical depths as I once heard Quasthoff do in Salzburg. Schiff, however, proved a far more interesting pianist than Quasthoff’s accompanist had been. Holl nevertheless proved an adept guide to the extraordinary texts Brahms selected from Scripture, the Apocrypha included. The import of the words was permitted to speak for itself. One could hardly fail to think of Ein deutsches Requiem, nor indeed in the motivic working – especially during the final, Pauline ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’ – of Brahms’s place in a great German tradition extending at least as far back as Schütz and at least as far forward as Schoenberg, arguably to Stockhausen too. Yet timelessness, doubtless rather than real, was equally apparent, just as in the extraordinary final chorale preludes, the only pieces Brahms would write after these songs. If Holl’s head voice was at times a little imprecise, frailty was powerfully, movingly conveyed when the Preacher tells us that all is vanity.

We then returned to our first poet, with Schubert’s Heine settings from Schwanengesang. Schiff again immediately announced himself an expert pianist in the composer’s style, the opening song, ‘Das Fischermädchen’, proving both urgent and infinitely touching, its modulations especially well handled. ‘Am Meer’ came next, Holl imparting a sense of loneliness such as one might experience when viewing a Caspar David Friedrich landscape, Schiff increasing the tension nicely in the second stanza. Bitterness and anger, doubtless of a somewhat different variety for Schubert than for Heine, were the destination. ‘Die Stadt’, which followed, again demonstrated the benefit of having a concert pianist, Schubert’s will-o’-the-wisp figuration almost but not quite dissolving upon the horizon, whilst the unresolved nature of the song’s conclusion peered forward to those eternal kinsmen of the composer: Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. ‘Der Doppelgänger’ was properly harrowing, Holl proving quite willing to make an ugly sound upon ‘Mir graust es’. The major-minor dichotomy of ‘Ihr Bild’ really told, prior to a final rage against the dying of the light in the drama of ‘Der Atlas’. It really seemed as though Holl wished to bear the whole world of sorrow of which the poet spoke. As an encore, ‘Der Taubenpost’ proved just the ticket, with nothing throwaway to a performance that took as great care over words and music as had the recital itself.

Mark Berry