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Lieder Greatness From Holzmair and Ryan

March 4, 2012

Cal Performances

Russell Ryan and Wolfgang Holzmair“He’s been under the weather,” I was informed before the recital began, “but he still sounds great.” And for the most part, Wolfgang Holzmair did indeed sound wonderful. Heard from the third row of Cal Performances’ Hertz Hall, the beguiling sweetness of his voice and the lightness of his touch remained remarkably intact for a baritone who turns 60 this year. But it was what the Austrian lieder specialist did with his voice that made of his 70-minute performance of Schubert’s 24-song cycle, ideally partnered by pianist Russell Ryan, one of the most probing and moving Winterreises that I ever expect to hear.

From the very first song, “Gute nacht” (Good night), Holzmair invoked his vaunted sweetness to introduce an extremely sensitive protagonist who was both tender and terribly vulnerable. When rejection came, just one song later, the voice not only grew louder but also began to turn bitter. As the journey progressed from “Gefrorne Tränen” (Frozen tears) to “Erstarrung” (Numbness), bitterness surfaced with increasing frequency, and was often accompanied by bursts of anger or intentionally flat-toned numbness.

Even when his tone softened and tempo slowed, instances of sweetness became fewer. Sometimes, as in the ninth song, “Irrlicht” (Will-o’-the-wisp), Holzmair used sweetness to intensify the growing sense of despair. Even the two most oft-performed songs of the cycle, “Der Lindenbaum” (The linden tree) and “Frühlingstraum” (Dream of spring), were shorn of the one-dimensional loveliness with which they are most often presented out of context. The consolation implicit in “Der Lindenbaum” only arrived in the last of its six stanzas, and spring’s dream of love requited seemed as ephemeral as the season that would never arrive.

Intense Body Language

Holzmair’s manner was different from his first recital in Hertz Hall well over a decade ago. Then, as I recall, he stood mainly in place, fairly erect, and emoted little. Here, he often leaned forward, almost as if curling up into a protective shell, as his being sank palpably deeper into the emotional bleakness of Schubert’s winter landscape.

This was one of the most probing and moving Winterreises that I ever expect to hear.

Given the lighting, which illumined the singer’s face from above, the impression of an artist withdrawn into himself was intensified by what seemed to be eyes half-shut or closed entirely. I don’t believe they were — Holzmair’s eyes do not naturally open wide at this stage in his life, even when speaking one-on-one — but the picture he projected was of a man so deeply immersed in woe that he had virtually withdrawn from the world.

Hands, however, told another story. At times, it felt as though Professor Wolfgang Holzmair, who is now in his 14th year of teaching lieder interpretation at the Salzburg Mozarteum, was using his hands to coach his students in proper expression. Was this a master class by Holzmair the pedagogue, or an extraordinary song recital by a blind man who was using gestures to add extra intensity to his meaning?

There may have been another reason for Holzmair’s unusual affect. His U.S. tour, which began in New York on Feb. 21, has been dogged by illness. In Baltimore on Feb. 26, critic Tim Smith reported his tone to be often “thin and nasally.” In Berkeley, though some low notes were shallow and a few highs pushed, the sound was far healthier. Nonetheless, it is possible that some of Holzmair’s body language reflected a still-indisposed artist, unsure of the state of his resources, who was reaching as deep within himself as possible in order to give everything he could.

A Rare Artistic Partnership

By the 12th song, “Einsamkeit” (Loneliness), bitterness and anger began to replace hope. Yet, even as Holzmair seemed to struggle with the effects of his cold, and gravel began to intrude, a surprising freshness sometimes surfaced that suggested that hope had not completely died. Then, as irony, resignation, frailty, and emptiness seemed about to lead to the inevitable end, something unexpected happened. Rather than presenting the chilling last song, “Der Leiermann” (The organ-grinder), as a statement of finality, Holzmair changed his tone from empty and pitiful to ambiguous. As he asked the pathetic, half-frozen organ-grinder, who was ceaselessly playing his tune to an audience of snarling dogs, whether the two of them might continue on together in song, Holzmair left us hanging.

This sense of a winter’s journey whose resolution was unclear left us in the audience with a profound sense of mystery.

Had he indeed reached the end of his journey, or was another chapter about to unfold? This sense of a winter’s journey whose resolution was unclear left us in the audience with a profound sense of mystery. As we slowly recovered from emotional devastation and rose to our feet in appreciation and gratitude, our applause honored a rare artistic partnership that prophetically pointed the way toward places that Schubert himself did not live long enough to explore.

A final thought: After experiencing countless singers, regardless of nationality, sing German with “proper lieder pronunciation,” it was ear-opening to hear an artist pronounce his native language so naturally, without smoothing over the raw sounds of open vowels and cutting consonants. Equally revelatory was how well Holzmair’s less than huge voice carried over a piano whose lid was propped wide open, and how selflessly and impeccably Ryan mirrored and supported his frequent shifts of tempo, dynamics, and tone.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.