Wednesday 19 November 2014

Wolfgang Holzmair and Sholto Kynoch in Die Winterreise

Wolfgang Holzmair
Schubert Die Winterreise; Wolfgang Holzmair, Sholto Kynoch; Wimbledon International Music Festival at St John's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 17 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Intense, inward, highly personal account of Schubert's great song-cycle

On 18 November 2014, the distinguished Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair performed Schubert's song-cycle Die Winterreise at St John's Church, Wimbledon as part of the Wimbledon International Music Festival. Holzmair was accompanied by pianist Sholto Kynoch, who is artistic director of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

Holzmair and Kynoch came onto the platform, Holzmair closed his eyes and the cycle started. For much of the time Holzmair had his eyes closed, was looking down or was looking at a distant place far in his memory. Holzmair's account of Die Winterreise was extremely intense and inward, it was a profound personal journey. We did not witness the disintegration of the protagonist before our eyes as happened with Simon Keenlyside (see my review), nor did he beard us Ancient Marriner like to tell his tale like Sir John Tomlinson (see my review). Instead it seemed to be pain recollected. And there was undoubtedly pain, but it was highly internalised and the final song, Der Leiermann was quietly disturbing. The result might not have been to all tastes, but it was quite remarkable and profoundly consistent. It was also one of the swiftest accounts of the song cycle that I have heard in a long time, though never felt rushed.

Sholto Kynoch
Sholto Kynoch
Holzmair is a great technical stylist and his command of the music was superb. What was notable was the way he combined a lovely sense of legato line, with a command of the words so that his diction was impeccable. This was sung poetry in just the right way. And he was able to adjust the meaning without having to suddenly change tack, so that different verses of the same song would be sung in almost the same way but thanks to subtle changes to articulation, attack, line, shape and colour, would have a vastly different feeling, moving say from resigned acceptance to bitter pain.

Gute Nacht started with a lovely moving forward in the piano, and Holzmair impressed with the way he combined both line and words. Die Wetterfahne was quite brisk, with Holzmair superbly controlled yet inward. Gefror'ne Tranen started from almost nothing, and seemed as if Holzmair was telling a story to himself. Erstarrung was again fast, and superbly controlled. There was a clear sense of continuity of thought between the songs. Each wasn't a separate little drama, but part of a longer whole. Der Lindenbaum was beautifully shaped, whilst in Wasserflut beauty gave way to short intense moments. Auf dem Flusse was steady, thoughtful with unearthly moments. Rückblick was vividly fast, whilst Irrlicht was surprisingly slow and less about description and more about his state of mind. Rast had a lovely sense of slow onward movement in the piano, with Holzmair going from quiet inwardness to vivid intensity and back. Frühlingstraum changed between careless and bitter, Einsamkeit was full of understated melancholy.

Die Post made you hang onto every word of the song, and Der greise Kopf had a haunted quality with lovely colours in the voice, whilst still making the words count. Die Krähe was surprisingly inward, except for the moments when the poet speaks to the crow. Kynoch's fabulous articulation in the piano in Letzte Hoffnung complemented the varied expression in Holzmair's voice. Im Dorfe was controlled, but with an edge creeping into the voice. Der stürmische Morgen was fast and bitter, with both performers exhibiting superb control. Täuschung was intensely characterised, and Der Wegweiser was bleak with a sense of steady marching onwards in the accompaniment. Das Wirtshaus was inward and profoundly haunted, with real bitterness at the end. Mut was characterised by superbly expressive articulation from both performers. Die Nebensonnen was bleak, shot through with bitter pain and sung in a very distant manner, as was the eerie conclusion Der Leiermann

Throughout Holzmair was finely supported by Kynoch, who very much matching Holzmair's quiet intensity and characterisation. This was very much a partnership, with both taking the same road.

I have to say that I enjoyed the translation provided to audience members. The English version used was one which stayed as close as possible to the word layout of the German original, which is always helpful when following lieder, rather than worrying about grander poetics.

I have to confess that this was a performance which I admired but did not love. Ultimately, for all Holzmair's superb control and technical skill, though the performance was deeply felt, it did not move me. But there were clearly many in the audience who felt differently and the reaction from the audience was strong.

Elsewhere on this blog:


  1. I heard Holzmair in an enthralling Winterreise in the Wigmore Hall a few years ago, with Andreas Haefliger, and I have their recording, so I am interested to read such a detailed and informative review of the recent Wimbledon recital. You draw attention to one of the singer’s great, but often undervalued, strengths, that is, the ability to move seamlessly between moods, even within songs, creating a scenario that is holistic but subtly varied in a way that really draws the listener in.
    And since emotional reactions are pretty subjective, it was good to see a critic mentioning that others in the audience responded differently from him. For myself, I rate a performance more on whether or not it pulls me into a different world, maybe even throws some unexpected light on the work. Which the Wigmore recital did, in spades. It seemed to shift the focus away from a world in which a Romantic disaster spirals out of control, ending in madness, or death, or some nameless but terrible fate, to a world of anxiety, deceived hopes, tormented questions and short-lived attempts at defiance. In fact a world that was a disturbing reflection of the 21stC.

  2. It was interesting what a wide range of reactions Wolfgang Hozmair elicited. At least one person that I knew in the audience said that Holzmair's voice did not move them and they could not bear to look at him. But a significant no. of people were very vocal in their appreciation and I think I sat somewhere in the middle!


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