Perfect Schubertiad from Holzmair and Cooper

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 7 – Schubert: Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Imogen Cooper (piano), Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 22.10.2013 (CR)

Schubert settings of poems by Johann Mayrhofer

Schubert: Aus Heliopolis II (Fels auf Felsen), D753
Philoktet, D540
Der entsühnte Orest, D699
Atys, D585
Fahrt zum Hades, D526
Freiwilliges Versinken, D700
Der zürnenden Diana, D707
Am Strome, D539
Wie Ulfru Fischt, D525
Auf der Donau, D553
Der Schiffer, D536
Einsamkeit, D620
Die Sternennächte, D670
Trost, D671
Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, D360
Auflösung, D807

Apart from Goethe, Schubert set the words of no other poet as prolifically as those of Johann Mayrhofer, who was a friend and maybe, as some have speculated though without concrete evidence, briefly a lover too. Perhaps even more so than with Schiller, Mayrhofer’s poetry expressed the striving after an ideal world which, it is imagined, will transform this imperfect one for the better – at least to some extent.

However rarefied and high-minded that may sound, there is also much in the poetry – and Schubert’s settings – which reflects the human and immediate world. Accordingly, Wolfgang Holzmair demonstrated a remarkably expressive range in his interpretations of the selected songs in this programme. He presented each one not simply as a well-turned melody without further significance, but as a lively narrative pulsing with varied, even contradictory aspects. His singing hinted at wider dramatic or operatic dimensions without resorting to any of the concomitant histrionics sometimes found in such larger music dramas. Indeed the character of a Heldentenor sometimes became evident and something of Wolfgang Windgassen’s tone perhaps came through in Holzmair’s singing, particularly at impassioned moments in Aus Heliopolis II or Der entsühnte Orest. Only once did Holzmair seem to reach the limit of his natural range, which was at the end of Freiwilliges Versinken when he sang with a wavering, almost falsetto tone, but quite probably that was no accident on his part, as the poem speaks here of finding oblivion “in weiter Ferne”, and so that timbre caught something of the distance referred to. The phenomenon of dissolution certainly was caught deliberately at the end of Auflösung, to close the programme, by Holzmair’s delivery of the repeated words “Geh’ unter Welt” as nearly spoken, sotto voce, in between exhaustion and rapture. The wide melodic leaps just before that were effortless too.

Despite the frequent straining towards the ideal or dissolution (perhaps meant, by Mayrhofer, to be identified together), Holzmair still gave frequent instances of a more sorrowful or tender mood. Philoctetes’s despondency in the eponymous poem was heightened by Holzmair’s making the character’s recriminations against Ulysses straight to the point and stoical. A note of stoicism opened Trost too, although Holzmair moved through explicit tragedy in this song to a sense almost of excitement, as the poet comes to the realisation at the end that “the grave holds no terror for me”. In contrast, a rapt, unearthly stillness drew the audience into a feeling of awe in Am Strome and Die Sternennächte.

In the lengthy Einsamkeit, Mayrhofer weighs up the pros and cons of a variety of situations and experiences in life, coming to the conclusion that solitude is what leads to happiness. Over the song’s six sections Holzmair showed that he could sustain a wide range of expressive nuances over a bigger canvas, giving unity by intoning the wish at the opening of each section (“Gib mir die Fülle der”…) with hymn-like solemnity. The desire for heroic adventures in the fourth section was met with a maddening frenzy, knowing that this could never be fulfilled, while a certain grotesquerie was apparent in the section extolling good company and dancing, though the multiple references to “Liebe” there were sung in a gentle caressing mode. In the final section, ‘Give me the consecration of solitude’, Holzmair found a conclusive serenity, signifying that happiness had indeed been reached. He achieved a compelling trajectory from radiant bliss to tragedy over the much shorter span of Auf der Donau, while Wie Ulfru Fischt and Der Schiffer elicited a more direct, though still engaging, manner of story-telling. As an encore, Holzmair returned to the hushed, sublime awe invoked by the night in Die Sternennächte by singing another Mayrhofer setting, Abendstern, D806.

In Imogen Cooper, Holzmair had an ideal accompanist, as she is an acknowledged interpreter of Schubert in her own right, having performed and recorded the composer’s sonatas and piano works to much acclaim. In so many ways she treated the accompaniments as musical utterances with all the complexity and nuances of the solo piano music – for instance, by effecting seamless modulations in mood and harmonies (always so telling in Schubert) from one section to the next, or establishing a becoming character for each song, such as the hefty, ominous attack at the beginning of Einsamkeit, or the dancing accompaniment to that song’s third section. From any point of view, this was a masterclass in how to mount the perfect Schubertiad.

 Curtis Rogers