Pianist Outshines Baritone Holzmair in Finely Detailed “Winterreise”

United StatesUnited States  Schubert, Winterreise: Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Russell Ryan (piano), presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California at Berkeley. 4.3.2012 (HS)

Wolfgang Holzmair does not wield the most sonorous of baritones, but his pinpoint control of tone, dynamics and musical line can be spellbinding. In a riveting performance of Schubert’s Winterreise Sunday at Hertz Hall, these efforts were palpable, even if they did not quite tug at the song cycle’s somber emotions as deeply as they might have done.

In the 24 songs that make up Winterreise, Schubert creates a remarkable arc of ever-icier feeling as the protagonist circles the idea of impending death. Although most singers aim to coax tears with the sheer power of their voices (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau comes to mind, and so does Thomas Quasthoff), Holzmair seemed more intent on other values. His hands were constantly in motion, but not with the histrionic drama of a stage actor. It took me awhile to realize that the gestures were those of a conductor shaping the music, though responding to the beat rather than leading it. At times he would point, not in any particular direction. Occasionally he would draw a square in the air, or turn a palm

In retrospect, perhaps he was creating the image of the song cycle’s narrator descending into insanity, which is one way to read the nature of the text. But no, it seemed as if he were so completely immersed in the music that the gestures were simply means of focusing its various elements for himself.

And indeed, the technical accuracy and beauty of his singing was nothing short of splendid. Intonation, rhythm, dynamics, vocal shading and breath control approached perfection. He articulated moments of coloratura with nonchalance, allowing no smears to sully the music. He did not hesitate to roughen the sound of his voice when the text demanded it, and the moments of pianissimo were truly beautiful.

It is perplexing that all Holzmair’s care did not add up to an emotional wallop. It was left to Ryan to deliver that with exquisite piano playing of real poignancy. There was not a whit of indulgence to the unhurried but inexorable tempos, nor to the occasional moments of hesitance with which the pianist tugged at the heart. And he did it all while synchronizing entrances and pace with Holzmair flawlessly.

They took the opening song, “Gute Nacht,” at a fairly brisk tempo, portending a dry-eyed approach, but as the first half drew to a close it was clear that the intensity was ramping up. By the time they reached the final section, beginning with No. 18, “Der Stürmische Morgen,” they moved from song to song with barely a pause. The effect was to make clear the gathering power, the gloom that finally reaches its apotheosis in the final “Der Leiermann,” with the organ-grinder’s drones playing against nostalgic turns on the piano. Holzmair’s straightforward singing put Ryan’s delicate and effective musical gestures in the spotlight. The piano carried the emotions, and brought things to a bleak but absolutely gorgeous close.

Harvey Steiman