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February 28, 2012

Wolfgang Holzmair offers intense 'Winterreise' for Shriver Hall Concert Series

When Franz Schubert was feeling down, we're talking way down. And no composer could capture the heart of despondency the way he could in song, especially in "Winterreise."

Depression never sounded more beautiful.

The 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller he chose convey a chilling case of someone who has his love, and his way. This wintry journey, which, in a good performance, seems every bit as physical as it is emotional and metaphorical, achieves a profound depth.

On Sunday evening, Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair sang "Winterreise" in a Shriver Hall Concert Series presentation, accompanied by American pianist Russell Ryan.

There was some disappointment. Holzmair's voice sounded thin and nasally (a cold, perhaps?), and it was pushed to the limit in the most drama-laden songs, such as "Der sturmische Morgen" and "Mut." But, in the end, the singer ...

was so thoroughly connected to the words and the music that you could not help but be drawn into the experience. This was an intelligent, sensitive interpretation. Just the way Holzmair used his hands as he sang could be remarkably affecting.

Highlights included the final outbursts of "Aif dem Flusse"; the carefully calibrated contrasts of mood in "Fruhlingstraum"; the subtly conversational articulation in "Die Krahe"; the white tone produced in "Der Wegweiser."

And the incredible final song, "Der Leiermann," conjuring the image of a hurdy-gurdy man playing on with icy fingers while people ignore him and dogs growl, found Holzmair phrasing incisively.

The pianist proved an able partner, but tended to favor technical clarity and concentration over tone color and and expressive personality.

The audience, given translations of the texts, rustled noisily with every page turn. Judging by the flashlights that lit up parts of the auditorium, several people struggled to read the material. Naturally -- does no one hear the perennial pleas of a poor critic? -- the hall was left much too dark.

Until organizations can afford some version of supertitles for lieder recitals, making printed versions unnecessary, they have simply got to get over a fear of lighting. We are all adults. We don't have to listen in the dark in order to feel we're getting a proper classical music experience.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:50 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall


Criticism pretty much right on. I disagree somewhat about the pianist. One rarely hears such wonderful phrase shaping. As for the darkness, I preferred it, especially for a performance so personal, dark, and engaging. I spent a lot of time absorbed, eyes closed.

Shame on those who stayed home and made the crowd smaller than usual. They really don't know what they missed.

Your points, both musically and atmospherically, are well taken. However, I think you let both the audience and the concert management off the hook regarding the noisy page turning and the lighting. It is unnecessary to either read along in German or have a translation available (particularly for a poetic, rhymed German that is hard to get the first time around even for German speakers). It is the music first then the performance. My own experience at operas and vocal recitals tells me that focusing on the words always is at the expense of the musical experience. Let's just listen.

I was inn fact told that there had been doubt that the artist could perform at all because of a sore throat. Nevertheless l. I did not detect the nasal quality but did note some difficulty in the lower range. However, as one who has recently traversed "Winterreise" recorded performances from Hotter to Fischr-Diescau to Pears, Vickers etc. that the genius of the lyric Holzmair is his uniquet interpretive ability, not overdramatising, in a perfect blending of words and music. It is that ability which makes him an outstanding lieder singer of our time.

Also, I was tauaght by my music history instructor how to turn pages silently. I also echo the reviewer's desire for more light in the auditorium.

As a singer, I respectfully disagree with the suggestions that lights should be kept low so the audience can immerse themselves in the music and not 'distract' themselves with the text. The words are integral part of vocal music. When performing, I am not making a generalized sound, but am making very specific choices about how to color and enunciate certain words, how to deliver certain sentences, how and when to 'change direction' emotionally-- and I want the audience to be able to follow along with me in a detailed way, to understand what I'm doing, whether they end up liking my approach or not. So yes, please keep the lights up. Noisy paging turning certainly can be annoying, but if it's a choice between that and nothing, I'll take it.

Amen. Thanks very much for your thoughtful views. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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