Arts: Show people: Sing a song of silence: 71: Wolfgang Holzmair

THIS IS the glamour of international touring: a small, dark hotel room in Padua where Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone, sits on a hard chair (there is nothing else) playing patience on the back of his suitcase (no table either). It is the day of a performance and he prefers not to speak on performance days, so he whispers: slowly and intently, with the help of a dictionary. His English is infinitely better than my German, but Holzmair is particular about language. He is, after all, a lieder singer; and one of the most remarkable of that exalted breed to hit the recital circuit in the past few years.

But 'hit' is probably an overstatement. Hits are not the normal process of the lieder world. Holzmair's arrival has been cultivated by word of mouth: fed by a handful of obscure recordings and endorsed by the management (and audience) of the Wigmore Hall in London, where he has been recruited into the hall's unofficial family of favoured artists.

Critics compare his musical intelligence to that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the retiring laureate of native lieder voices. And like Fischer-Dieskau, he has a parallel stage career which, after a traditional apprenticeship among the second division theatres of German opera, recently broke through to division one, at the Vienna Staatsoper. With engagements pending at La Fenice, Salzburg and Covent Garden (Papageno in the new Magic Flute that opens later this year), it's clear that Holzmair stands on the threshold of serious international stardom.

The only thing that remains unclear is why it has taken so long - because Holzmair is 40, an advanced age to be on the threshold of anything. The answer is that he was a late starter. As a child, brought up near Linz in northern Austria, he sang with a well-known boys' choir and had, as he describes it, 'a high soprano voice that could do Queen of the Night with no difficulty' - which must have been worth hearing. But under pressure from his father, a businessman, he studied economics and took a job in commerce.

It wasn't until he was 27 that he went back to singing seriously; and then he did it cautiously, knowing his limitations. 'I am a high baritone, so there aren't that many opera roles I can sing comfortably: Pelleas, Papageno, the Barber, yes. Scarpia, no. And then I was worried that my voice wasn't big enough. But I found out that size is not the issue: it's how the voice carries. So I thought that maybe I could survive with what I had.'

For the next few years it was a matter of survival, with house baritone jobs in Berne and Gelsenkirchen and local one-night stands. But it was a chance to learn repertory, win competitions (including the important Vienna Musikverein lieder prize), and immerse himself in Schubert and Mahler, his greatest loves. In 1989 he was invited to give a lieder recital at the Wigmore Hall. The reviews were (no exaggeration) ecstatic; and on the basis of them, the Wigmore's management took the unprecedented step of asking him back three times the following year, with similar results.

Not only beautiful of tone and stylish, Holzmair lived his texts with an extraordinary ear for detail. Recital singing is, after all, a microscopic art, exposed to knowing audiences who listen for minutiae. It's more precise than opera; and the knowingness exerts an added strain on singers - although Holzmair says it can also be helpful: 'It means you can start on a different level of interpretation. But the important thing is not to let the demand for detail lure you into artifice. When you rehearse, yes, think about it word by word. But when you do the concert, no. Sophisticated singers are admirable but they don't touch your heart. Only natural singers do that. Singers who understand that there is no emotion so direct, so honest and so pure as in a German lied.'

To anyone who thinks of lieder as a cerebral, recherche corner of vocal repertory, this may be hard to accept. But the romantic verse on which most lieder rely is usually simplistic, anti-intellectual, and dependent on a finite catalogue of images. Once you know the German for love, loneliness and longing, and can ally these concepts to such natural phenomena as springtime, rushing brooks and wind in tree-tops, you've mastered the essential vocabulary. This emotional innocence can present problems to younger German singers (not to mention younger German audiences) who find them disconcertingly nave.

'But the truth,' says Holzmair, 'is that Schubert is simple, not nave. Three days ago I was walking in the Vienna Prater. It was spring, the constant theme of Romantic poetry; and I wondered, how can people in towns and cities feel the significance of the seasons changing? They don't know about the wind in tree-tops and little brooks coming out of rocks. These things have largely gone from their lives. And so has silence. In all the lieder, stille (silence) is, after liebe (love), the highest quality. But where is stille now - in the department store, the rail station, the airport? If nothing else, I hope I can give someone who comes to my recital for one and a half hours the chance to feel the silence of these songs.'

On cue, the phone rings. We are, after all, in an Italian hotel with Holzmair's agent, accompanist (the Schubert specialist Imogen Cooper), various concert staff, and an accommodation crisis that seems to require Signori White and Holzmair (at least) to share the same room, and bed, that night. I haven't as yet passed this information on. 'Don't worry,' Holzmair smiles with a seraphic otherworldliness. 'I never answer phones on a performance day.'

Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper perform Schubert's 'Schwanengesang' at the Wigmore Hall, London W1, on Tuesday (071- 935 2141).

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month