Wolfgang Holzmair

Charlie Cockey

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

Holzmair? You really want to know? Well, just for starters, imagine a baritone who sounds like Fritz Wunderlich. Imagine an interpreter who makes Thomas Hampson sound like he’s sight-reading. Imagine hearing Mahler and realizing you’ve never heard it before. He created worlds in syllables, galaxies in simple lines. His final encore, a very quiet prayer, ended with “Süße Friede komm zu meiner Brust” (Sweet Peace, Come into my Breast) and created silence all over again. It was, in a word, wonderful.

Here’s a bit from a letter I just wrote to a friend who was out herevisiting this last weekend, but left before he could attend this concert:

Whereas Wolfgang Holzmair may not yet be a household name, even in US Lieder circles, every minute missed, every concert passed by, is a lost chance to hear a great artist at the peak of his vocal powers, and with his interpretive skills honed to their max. Just spectacular concert tonight — he did Wanderer songs, by Schubert, Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Vaughan-Williams, and Ernst Krenek, even — and I bet you’ve never heard those songs!! His Mahler was, well, actually it was beyond revelatory!! He did it so differently from anything I’ve ever heard it, and so convincingly, that I’d be tempted to call some of his highly personalized interpretations definitive, were such words and attitudes anathematic to whoever the next genius waiting in the green womb may be….

That’s what I wrote to him. But you, my friend, you would not have believed the Mahler! First of all, his pianist, Stephen Blier, who plays for Ramey, and Flicka, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Arleen Auger, and, oh yes, Cecilia Bartoli, did things with the piano part of “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” that I’ve never heard. Clarity, lines, spaces I never knew existed. And Holzmair never let his voice go beyond a certain point in this song, always held within the draped veil of sorrow.

The first set was Schubert, starting with “Das Wandern” (Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust, das Wandern). What he did here was to let the piano play louder than usual, and to take it at an even faster clip than usual, until he got to the penultimate verse: Verse one, wandering is the millers love; verse two, he learns it from the water in the river; verse three he learns it from the wheels, always turning; and then verse four — even the stones, as heavy as they are, the stones! They dance with the merry dancer, and try to go even faster. Well, for this verse, he suddenly let the music slow down, and the beats of the measure get heavier, more pronounced (musical term: piu pesante) — you could just feel the boomp boomp boomp of the stones, filling with joy and getting into it, dancing. And then the last verse: O Wandern, o wandering, this is my joy, Master and mistress, let me go in peace, to wander — and he pulled back, way back, he almost let it stop, and then he sang so gently, so delicately, and with the easiest smile in his voice. Ah, gee, it was perfect.

His interpretative allowances sometimes seemed that they might verge on the excessive, and yet they never did: they always made sense, and never stepped over the line into anything but the shockingly appropriate. By the time he did the Mahler sad song of “My Beloved Is Having Her Wedding Day,” he was able to all but do away with rhythmic metre, and let the words speak as words, merely sitting on the notes, as colors on a cushion. It was at times almost uncanny.

And then, just as he had taken the Wandern song so much faster than I’ve ever heard it, he did “Ging heut morgen übers Feld,” another of the Mahler Songs of the Wayfarer, this one usually done as a very brisk, light-hearted, almost boisterous song (until the last couplet of course, when Mahler pulls the rug out from under). Here, however, exactly the opposite of the opening Schubert piece, he took it much slower than I’ve ever heard it — and I mean much slower. But the piano lightened up, and, instead of being a yippee isn’t this a great day and hooboy ain’t I havin’ fun kind of Allegro, it became an almost reverentially joyous song — when the wanderer says “Ei, du, Gelt? Guten Morgen! Ei gelt! Du! Wird’s nicht eine schöne Welt, schöne Welt” instead of being boisterous, there is a tenderness, an awe at the beauty of the little flower, a kind of spellbound amaze at the beauty of this beautiful world, this schöne Welt, and the song slides upwards to another, ethereal level I never knew it could have. And then, omigod, when he gets to that final couplet, and sings “Nun fängt auch mein Glück wohl an?” (And Now Also Does My Joy Begin?) “Nein! Nein! Das ich mein, mir nimmer blühen kann!” (No! No! That of mine, for me it will never bloom) — he leans his body over just a little, he covers his voice, he darkens his tone, and he sings with an introspection verging on desolate implosive collapse, no, no, mine will never bloom. And sinks into silence. And you cannot move.

The Vaughan-Williams was not my favorite, and the Krenek would require more listenings to discuss with anything other than to say I really liked it, how it mixed Richard Straussian opulence with atonality, with all sorts of styles, and how surprisingly and wonderfully listenable, even beautiful, it often was. But, as it was a first hearing, I can’t comment beyond that. Before starting the Krenek, the artists requested no applause at its end, and went from that without pause back into a closing set of Schubert, ending with the Wanderers Nacthlied 2, a delicately quiet nighttime forest cathedral wish for peace, and then, Abschied, Farewell, from Schwanengesang, pulling the entire evening closed with a full circle ending becoming beginning, Ade, Ade, Ade, done here more gently than usual, perhaps a teeny bit slower, but gently gently gently. Ending with “Ade, you stars, veil yourselves with grey, Ade….”

I guess I went on a bit there, but I’m still totally wired from that show. Man! Oh yeah! He’s a baritone, but you would not believe the glory of his ultra high notes, and the ease with which he produces them. It feels as though, before he goes up there, that he’s already at the top of his comfortable tessitura, and then, it is as if he simply opens another door, and is in another room, another realm entirely, and these crystal pure high tones come out, and just as apparently easily as the mid tones — and nothing, nothing comes out that doesn’t have meaning, shading, contour…. In the final lullaby encore, “Süße Friede komm zu meiner Brust,” the word “komm,” such a short and other times unexceptional sound combination, he pulls from the closed K sound the almost reluctant but achingly beautiful O, then gently smooths the edges, the ruffles, and sets it pillow gently down into the rest and softness of the MM…. This guy is truly an artist. If I wax rhapsodic, it is because he thrilled me, in the true sense of the word. Wow. I’m still there.