tue 26/01/2021

Wolfgang Holzmair, Andreas Haefliger, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Wolfgang Holzmair, Andreas Haefliger, Wigmore Hall

Wolfgang Holzmair, Andreas Haefliger, Wigmore Hall

Wolfgang Holzmair and Andreas Haefliger for all their artistry don't make the pain burn

There’s something beyond detailed and attentive musicianship that’s needed in Schubert’s last, most desolate song-cycle, Winterreise (“Winter’s journey”). It’s a dramatic arc that unites these 24 songs into a journey, the number of breaths in time and miles in distance that elapse from the first poem to the 24th, and bring you a sense of contact with the person undergoing this terrible suffering. Someone who is not Schubert, the composer, or Müller, the poet, but a third person.

How much biography should we read into it? Schubert was dying slowly from years of syphilis, at the ridiculously young age of 31, forsaken by his friends, destitute, still correcting proofs of Winterreise when he was smitten finally by typhoid. That unfathomably tragic process of dying without hope infuses itself coldly through the entire song cycle, and the question for the singer and pianist is how much to take it as a death-bed cry, or as something more fictional and elusive, as its poems convey, a Romantic portrait of a lovelorn man.

The story starts in snow and ends in it. Between those points the young man walks and walks, shedding hope, weeping frozen tears, and descending into suicidal hallucinations. The 24 songs could be Schubert scratching over and over at his own pain, but great interpreters show you something of dual pathos, an accumulating emotional reality of universal belonging, a soul you can recognise in people you know, or yourself. You can laugh gently at his self-pity, or share the cruel bite of his hot pain, or long to wrap him like a child in cotton wool, or feel that you too are dying with him.

This I didn’t feel with last night’s performance at the Wigmore Hall by Wolfgang Holzmair, the Austrian baritone, and Andreas Haefliger, the Swiss pianist, intelligent, tasteful and sincere as it was. Holzmair has a high baritone voice, almost tenor in sound, which suits the youthfulness of the protagonist (you know this is a lad, because his sufferings have a self-absorbed, even narcissistic touch here and there). Haefliger, on the other hand, is a pianist of dark mysterious colours and sudden risky rides in dynamic and pulse.

Fine though the ingredients are of this partnership, and united their intentions, the evening lacked an overall sense of destination. Each song was acutely coloured, the words articulated with much expressive sincerity, the piano textures shivery with temperature changes, crisp or thawing. Some were piercingly transmitted:  the crucial leaf trembling on the tree in "Letzte Hoffnung", the stream of tears in "Wasserflut".

But while Holzmair would very likely be a first-class recording artist in this, he has an offputting platform manner, awkward next to the piano; thin, and slightly resembling Michael Palin, he scrunches his eyes closed, claws his right arm stiffly around himself, a movement that looks unnaturally adopted and makes watching him discomfiting. This almost certainly interfered with my reception of what he offered, but what was emerging musically, anyway, was a repetitiousness of dynamic structure in too many songs.

A tempo struck at the start would swiftly decelerate in very marked rubati to a trudging slowness, often led by Holzmair’s intense articulation of the climactic lines to the poems. The effect was that what should be a landscape of desperate states became a repeating pattern - "Auf dem Flusse", "Rast", "Frühlingstraum", "Die Post", "Der greise Kopf", "Das Wirtshaus", all began with clear pulse and decelerated into ponderous stomps - too noticeable not to gradually break down the fiction.

I also don’t like a cod madman’s yowl being put on the voice for the last songs, which Holzmair did in the last-gasp determination of "Mut!" and the lost hallucination of "Die Nebensonnen". Unkempt, sick the traveller may be, but this sort of prescriptiveness limits the resonance of the end - those strange poems grade the different states of dying with a frightening clarity, and there’s an extra metaphysical pain to be felt if the hurdy-gurdy man might just as likely save this freezing lad’s life as be the dark angel of death.

Which I suppose only goes to show how powerful this cycle is, how we continue to fashion our own stories for it. And how one may deeply admire the musicianship and integrity of such artists as Holzmair and Haefliger without, in this instance, having been touched to the quick.

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I am always puzzled when a review of a live performance fails to mention audience reaction. I was at the Wigmore for the unusual Holzmair/Haefliger Winterreise, and there was no sense of let-down in my part of the hall, or from those whom I spoke to afterwards. On the contrary, the experience was being savoured.

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