Little-heard style given new voice at recital

Review: Baritone Wolfgang Holzmair made music speak volumes during his performance Tuesday.

February 08, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Of all the disturbing developments in the world of classical music - the dumbing-down or elimination of classical radio stations, the decline in the number of classical recordings, increasingly conservative concert programming in many places, the cheesy marketing of some classical artists - perhaps the most lamentable is the dearth of vocal recitals.

A recital of "art songs" is a naked kind of music-making, just the poetry and the music, just the voice and the interpretation, only a piano for accompaniment.

Today, when many singers leap-frog right past this developmental process into the glamorous world of opera and when many audiences crave splash more than subtlety, the recital is a tough sell. Those who give recitals and those who attend them seem more and more like members of an exotic cult, few in number but intensely devoted. They share a rare, incalculably enriching communion.

That bond was palpable Tuesday at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, where Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair demonstrated the art of the recital. The crowd, which did not fill the intimate hall, listened with a raptness that is hard to find at most performances; people here even knew how to stifle coughs. No one, it seemed, wanted to miss a note, an inflection. And no wonder.

Holzmair was born to sing lieder, the incomparable repertoire of German art songs, and he offered a substantive dose of it. Although the composers were drawn almost entirely from the mainstream, only a few of the songs would be considered widely known. Holzmair constructed a program that was as much text-based as musically rewarding.

Poetry by such major figures as Goethe, Ruckert and Heine was represented in songs by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Wolf (along with one by the much less familiar Othmar Schoeck). They were imaginatively collected by theme and mood, with a connective thread of sorts in the recurring references to the non-Western world.

Holzmair brought musical insight, technical assurance, clarity and communicative power of articulation to each piece.The baritone's voice may not be particularly warm, and the upper registers not particularly rich. His timbre may not have the individualistic shadings of some notable predecessors in lieder performance. But what he does with his voice, how he molds it around a note, how he fits it so perfectly to a word, is extraordinary.

Whether tapping the exquisite tenderness of Schubert's Sei mir gegrusst or the passionate fervor of Brahms' Liebesglut, Holzmair's combination of intellectual and artistic gifts was compelling.

What he did with Mendelssohn's gently flowing Auf Flugen des Gesanges (the only "greatest hit" on the program) was magical, the phrases elegantly, unaffectedly molded. It was a case of lyricism in its purest form. A flair for humor also flashed out in songs by Wolf and Brahms.

Holzmair, who enjoys a starry international career in concert halls, opera houses and recording studios, had the benefit of second-nature accompaniment from Russell Ryan. The pianist proved as sensitive to the gentlest nuances of tempo and dynamics as the singer, and knew how to make the keyboard "speak" as vividly as the poems being sung.

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