Schubert: The Cycles Wolfgang Holzmair(baritone)

Schubert: The Cycles
Wolfgang Holzmair(baritone)
Imogen Cooper (piano)

Die schone Mullerin; Winterreise; Schwanengesang; 7 lieder

Philips 476-200-2 (3-CD pack)
TPT: 3:34:59

reviewed by Neville Cohn



There are so many fine recordings of Schubert’s great song cycles extant, many of them of exceptional standard, that one might question whether there’s a need of another – in this case a re-issue. What, if anything, does this re-release offer the listener that is not adequately, indeed, in some cases, superbly, explored on other CDs available at the present time?

After the most careful listening – and a good many re-hearings – to the Holzmair/Cooper partnership, the answer is very definitely in the affirmative, especially in relation to the Mullerin and Winterreise works.

Now, let it be unequivocally said that many – most, for that matter – of the other versions currently available are as technically skilled and tonally attractive in relation to both voice and piano; some, such as the Fischer-Dieskau/Moore recordings have the unmistakable stamp of greatness.

But what places the Holzmair/Cooper version of the cycles in a category largely of its own is the quite exceptional care lavished on the schubert1narrative aspect of the works, a sense of an unfolding, many-chaptered tale being related to the listener by master story tellers. The plural is deliberate, the piano accompaniments as crucial to the overall effect as the vocal line.

This is no mean achievement. Holzmair and Cooper present the cycles in a way that compels complete attention from first note to last. There is nothing in the current catalogue of available recordings that offers this crucial dimension at so high a level and so consistently. Here, the cumulative effect of Holzmair and Cooper’s approach to the the narrative’s development, especially in Winterreise, makes for enthralling listening.

Again and again, one is drawn ineluctably into the unique sound and mood world of Schubert who focussed his genius so unremittingly on Wilhelm Muller’s rather humdrum words that, for the duration of the performance, they sound significantly more profound and probing than they really are. This is rather like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in which Victor Hartman’s quite ordinary drawings and paintings are given an immortality by the music that they would never have achieved on their own.

Certainly, in Winterreise, Holzmair and Cooper evoke, with uncanny skill, the bitterness of broken dreams that lies at the heart of the cycle, in which gloom and depression are all-pervading and where the effect of the forsaken protagonist’s corrosive loneliness transforms mere sadness into a despair beyond despair. And when, towards the close of the work, the hapless lover experiences mental disintegration – where, hallucinating, he looks up at the sky and sees, not one sun, but three – Holzmair and Cooper’s lieder partnership achieves greatness.

And in Die Schone Mullerin, the shifting moods of the cycle from blithe to suicidal are impressively evoked. Here is an account that is no less persuasive as an unfolding story, a performance brimming with meaning.

Here are innumerable felicitous touches. Listen, for instance, to Wohin?: how perfectly controlled the piano triplets are – and Holzmair’s lightness of tone here sounds entirely right. And there is about the presentation of Ungeduld a quality of palpitating breathlessness that is a perfect assessment of the impatience that is the title of this lied. And the so-elusive piano accompaniment to Der Lindenbaum is splendidly controlled and lyrical.

A minor reservation is an occasional inclination to overaccentuate this or that syllable in the vocal line.

Schwanengesang is given first rate treatment. I particularly admired the youthful, keen ardour brought to Standchen as well as the remarkable clarity of Cooper’s playing, so very difficult to achieve in Aufenthalt where, more often than not, the piano part can sound thick-textured and blurred. Here, fittingly, the vocal line comes across like a cry of pain. Listen, too, for that sinister sense of foreboding which Holzmair and Cooper conjure up in Herbst.

Liebesbotschaft, one of Schubert’s most poignant utterances, is most competently essayed although one felt a need for a rather more emphatic left hand to underscore Schubert’s glorious, shifting modulations in the piano part.

In addition to Schwanengesang, there are an additional seven lieder, each presented like a finely facetted gem.

These are performances that warrant pride of place in any collection of lieder recordings.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

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