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Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna

New York
Lincoln Center
08/04/2002 -  
Franz Schubert: Five Songs; Zwei Klavierstuecke, D. 946; Symphony # 3
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Lieder und Kantaten; Overtue to Der Schauspieldirektor; Piano Concerto # 18
Gustav Mahler: Four Wunderhorn Songs
Gustav Mahler (arr. Schoenberg): Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Imogen Cooper (piano)
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Joseph Swensen (conductor)

Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair has been thinking a lot recently about the singing tradition in his native land and its epicenter in the city where he studied his art. Later on in the new season, he will present an evening of Alpine songs spanning the lieder spectrum as he offers Schubert and Krenek at the Metropolitan Museum. For summer fare, he has chosen a survey of cantillation from Mozart to Schoenberg, dividing his time between intimate recitals with piano accompaniment and appearances with small orchestra. Over two days at the Mostly Mozart festival, he touched on at least three distinct periods of revolutionary vocalism. The festival, virtually annihilated by a labor dispute, can thank its lucky stars that a precious few concerts of high quality survive to carry on.

Those very stars were the subject of Holzmair’s first set of Schubert songs, intoned with a rare sense of purity and impeccable diction. As in many programs of this superior artist, the material is of the lesser known variety, the artist eschewing the familiar for the equally deserving buried treasure. This fine, upper register baritone is masterful at polishing the nobility of a composition to a glowing sheen, every note a fully developed pear. At this initial recital at Tully, Holzmair took full advantage of the intimate acoustics to forge a sonic atmosphere where any sense of strain was gloriously banished.

One would have had to have purchased that gargantuan 150 CD set of the complete Mozart oeuvre from his last major anniversary to be familiar with the Masonic cantatas offered by this musical archaeologist. These dramatic readings exist somewhere between the concert aria and the operatic “number” style of soliloquy and reflect the deep emotion that Mozart himself felt for the intellectual integrity of his secret society. Perhaps this sense of pride in purely cerebral and moral matters is somewhat lost on 21st century audiences, however, the intensity of feeling was perfectly projected in these eloquent renditions. The analogy to Sarastro is obvious: here we have the high priest with a higher voice, but with no loss of essential majesty. The program was worth the price of admission for these hidden jewels alone.

It is very trendy to feature one’s recital partner these days, and so Imogen Cooper presented her own offering of pieces rare but well done. The two Klavierstuecke D946 seemed to have been chosen for their obscurity (after all, she could have presented examples of the very similar in style Impromptus or Moments Musicaux) and for this we are all in her debt. The second piece, presented first, was a bit too foursquare for my taste, no effort made by the pianist to vary the phrasing of repeated snatches of melody, little sense of delicacy or rubato to emphasize the poetic nature of this wonderful music. The first of the two, when presented second, fared much better, but only because it is written in a more straightforward, prosaic style. Overall, Ms. Cooper’s technical ability was solid, but I was anxious to get back to the more subtle interpretive sensibilities of our baritone.

The recital ended with moving portrayals from Mahler’s Wunderhorn, the Mozart connection established by an extremely poignant Wo die schoenen Trompeten blasen, the pathos inspired by the bathos of those military parodies in Figaro and Cosi. All in all, a genuinely professional concert featuring a very high level of musical honesty.

The second night, at Avery Fisher, featured the surprisingly fresh and warm sound of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, whose opening burst of sunlight in the Schauspieldirektor Overture immediately put the lie to the notion that period instruments necessarily equal dry and stuffy performances. Joseph Swensen deserves high marks for his ability to let a little air into the academic world of the original instrument crowd, his boisterous and entertaining approach so much more satisfying than many of his more renowned colleagues. Ms. Cooper returned for a yeomanlike, but not especially inspired, version of the 18th Concerto. Some of her impressive technique deserted her this night, but the buoyancy of the band saved the performance from tedium.

Not surprisingly, the highlight was the appearance of Mr. Holzmair in the Schoenberg transcription of Mahler’s ”Wayfarer” Songs. The leader of the second Viennese school may have had an aversion to “isms” (he especially hated the term serialism), but was forced by circumstance to become a master of reductionism due to the unavailability of either musicians or fans to properly mount many of his own orchestral compositions. Founding his own society which, unlike Mozart, he would have preferred to have been less secret, the professor/composer introduced many of the works of his students and contemporaries in a more private setting. Honoring his mentor, he included several Mahler efforts in these soirees. This arrangement for ten players of a full orchestral score exhibits Schoenberg’s amazing ear for acoustical color, the naked solo violin in Ging heut Morgen uebers Feld much more arresting than the full Mahlerian original. One hears the touch of the creator of Pierrot Lunaire in every bar. Holzmair’s instrument was perfectly in tune with this miniaturist aesthetic, his particular brand of stratospheric baritone especially versatile in navigating the inordinately high sections. This guest artist also showed a great deal of genuine emotion in Ich hab’ein gluehend Messer, making believers of us all and contrasting so favorably with those who seem to have only a breakaway stage dagger at their breast. Seldom have I heard such controlled intensity in these songs: this was a stunning performance.

The Schubert connection was established in the last Mahler song, a linking of the lindenbaum image of death, and served as a thoughtful introduction to a rollicking rendition of the Symphony # 3. Swensen is especially gifted in capturing the lilt of this piece, the accented upbeats and the skater’s waltz smoothness. These early orchestral essays of Schubert are often ignored in favor of their more profound younger siblings, but they cut to the heart of the Viennese tradition that permeated all of the works in these two concerts. Even though the Mostly Mozart experience was mostly cancelled, some very pleasant memories will remain from this one charming pairing of events.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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