MUSIC / Don't apologise: Adrian Jack on Wolfgang Holzmair and Vardan Mamikonian in recital

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The Independent Culture
Imogen Cooper is known mainly as a solo pianist. When she partnered the Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair at the Wigmore Hall in London last Thursday, I half expected her to walk on stage first. She didn't, and although the programme was of songs by Schumann which make their point as much from the piano as from the voice part, it was definitely Holzmair's recital with accompaniment.

He has a fine voice, warm and full (though slightly and not unattractively cloudy on this occasion), and he worked hard to project expression; yet there was little chemistry between him and his partner. In Dichterliebe he needed more defined character from the pianist to sharpen the often bitter and painful meaning of Heine's words. When, in the first song, the mood was sweet and tender, pianist and singer matched each other satisfactorily, but in the defiance of 'Ich grolle nicht', Holzmair was on his own.

Had Cooper played the poignant postlude to the last song as a solo piece, she would surely have poured out her soul, instead of which, like so many 'accompanists', her meekness seemed to apologise for making the singer wait.

To have already made two CDs at the age of 24, including both sets of Chopin Studies, isn't bad going. Few pianists would take the risk so young in such revealing repertory. Vardan Mamikonian showed that his credentials weren't fabricated by record producers when he played the even-numbered studies from Chopin's Op 25 in his British debut at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening.

He shaped the tender middle section of the octave study with sincere simplicity, proving that he could be sensitive as well as strong. He needed to assure us, because, in an otherwise powerful performance of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, he tended to underplay the lyrical passages. The variations of the second movement were a bit pale and lacked expressive weight compared with the energy and strong sense of design Mamikonian brought to the other movements, though there, too, the quieter passages tended to fade, as if he were merely turning down the volume and listening less intently to himself.

No doubt he will gain confidence in reflective music as he matures. If he was too impatient to dream, to spin out the melody of Chopin's Andante spianato as its title suggests, he played a wistful Elegy by Arno Babadjanian really touchingly, and nothing in his demanding recital programme, which also included Tchaikovsky's Theme and Variations, Op 19, and Le jeu des contraires by Henri Dutilleux - all played from memory - was unduly squeezed for significance.

Mamikonian is not, as a Zurich critic is quoted as saying, 'the greatest pianist of the next decade' (was something gained in translation, perhaps?), for no such animal could exist, but he is already very good and has every chance of developing into something even better.

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