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All From One Pen

New York
Alice Tully Hall
02/28/1999 -  
B>Franz Schubert: 12 Lieder after Goethe
Hugo Wolf: 13 Lieder after Goethe

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Russell Ryan (piano)

Mozart would have loved Wolfgang Holzmair. Tall, gangly and rather goofy, he struts onto the stage like a baggy pants comedian and takes a minute to compose himself. Then out of his mouth comes a magnificent voice, a uniquely high register baritone, almost a tenor range. In the eighteenth century he would have sung not only Papageno but Tamino as well. In our age of specialization, he limits his operatic roles to Pelleas and a few parts in Handel and Monteverdi which were always listed as tenore because the true baritone had not yet been identified as a vocal type. Holzmair puts me in mind of Jim Nabors, the awkward Gomer Pyle of American television, whose speaking voice and bucolic body language belied the mellifluous singing voice hidden deep inside.

Holzmair is an annual visitor to New York in his specialty, the lieder recital. This year, as part of the Great Performers series, he presented songs of Schubert and Wolf written to the words of the immortal Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the poet most represented in classical music with the possible exception of Shakespeare, whose 250th birthday is celebrated in 1999. Interestingly, most of the Schubert songs were rather obscure ones. No Heidenroslein, no Erlkoenig; rather a set of songs forever lost in the gargantuan output of Schubertian vocal music. Holzmair possesses a wonderful instrument and from the first note it was apparent that he would carry the day. He is best at the comic and upbeat songs, but is also a sensitive interpreter of the more serious. The synaesthetic experience of hearing this music coming from this creature is highly satisfying, if not a phenomenon of the highest echelon. Mr. Holzmair credits Fischer-Dieskau for inspiring him to switch his field of study from business to music, but he is hardly of the same emotive stuff as his mentor.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Hugo Wolf and his Goethe year. As with that other obsessive-compulsive composer Robert Schumann, Wolf wrote 51 songs on texts of the great poet consecutively and then never set the master to music again. Holzmair's set began with the familiar Anakreons Grab, made famous in the era of recordings by the great tenor John McCormack. Here the extremely high baritone was wonderfully ghostly and Holzmair acted very competently with his voice. To reinforce the comparison with Schubert, Holzmair sang several songs whose words were also set by the Viennese, including Ganymed and the three versions of Harfenspieler. But he was most effective in the final number, the thrilling Der Rattenfaenger, where the boasts of the ratcatcher were perfect for this extraverted singing persona.

Not enough is said about the art of the accompanist. Russell Ryan is terrific at his job. Unobtrusive when it is called for, he allowed the spotlight to remain squarely on the young baritone while performing his part flawlessly. When he was given the limelight, as in the final Wolf piece with its fast and exciting passages, he thrilled us all with his virtuosity.

The crowd was very appreciative of this program and so there were several encores, all keeping with the Goethean theme. Here we were treated to the comically gentle side of Mr. Holzmair and enjoyed the jaunty version of Heidenroslein for which we were all pining. Like the final Schubert song before intermission, the only familiar one in the bunch (Der Musensohn), this showpiece was in the exact range of Holzmair's voice and stage persona. Perhaps this wasn't the most sublime lieder recital, but it was one of the more entertaining. One thought of Jan Michael Voegel the aging baritone touring with the 17-year-old Schubert and introducing the world to the art of lieder singing, imposing his powerful personality onto the fledgling art form. Mr. Holzmair is well on his way to a fine combination of persona and artist and should do very well both on the recital and operatic stages.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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