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double play

Schumann: Dichterliebe; Liederkreis; Heine Songs Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Imogen Cooper (piano) (Philips 446 086-2)
If ever a voice looked you straight in the eye, this one does. It's a voice you can trust. The timbre alone is reassuring: fresh, eager, wide-open yet discreet (this has to be the sweetest mezza voce in the business) - born to suggest youth, yearning, and love unrequited. Wolfgang Holzmair wears his considerable artistry lightly. Whatever it is that happens in the moment of performance, between the expression and the production of the sound, remains properly concealed from us. Holzmair will clarify, illuminate a song, lifting, highlighting a word or phrase of text without ever seeming to do so. But it's the old story - if the performer feels it, you'll hear it.

It is an exceptionally light, bantamweight baritone, which makes for an affecting vulnerablity in some of these songs, while naturally intensifying their confidentiality. But inevitably there are resonances that elude him and it (most particularly in the lower quarter of the voice). Then again, such is the skill of Schumann's writing - voice and keyboard as one, not so much a shared, more a unified experience - that Imogen Cooper's hands repeatedly refresh the parts Holzmair's voice cannot reach.

Dichterliebe is outstanding. These songs might have been custom-made for this voice, this singer. It's there right from the start, this special atmosphere, it's there in the luminosity with which Cooper announces "the glorious month of May". It's there in the fourth song "Wenn ich in deine Augen seh", where Holzmair can hardly bring himself to utter the words "I love you" (his inflection here is but a whisper in his lover's ear). And after the ecstasy, the agony, made public with the great "Ich grolle nicht", its climax cutting to the quick in a defiant, almost tenorial high A.

"Hor' ich das Liedchen klingen" is exquisite, the tears that "dissolve the excess of my grief" falling like a gentle rain in both voice and keyboard; and there's that marvellous song "Ich hab' im Traum geweinet" ("I wept in my dream"), which might almost be unaccompanied but for the piano's stark reminders that the dreamer is now awake and the heartache all too real.

Cooper has the last word - one of those lingering Schumann postludes where grief falls away with the embellishments leaving only reconciliation and hope.


Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper's Wigmore Hall Lieder recitals were one of my critical highlights of 1994. So this just had to be wonderful - hadn't it? In fact, there was more than a twinge of disappointment at the end of the Dichterliebe cycle, and that's the strongest thing on the disc. Perhaps I should have tried to forget Holzmair in the flesh - after all, there's a big difference between the intimacy of a live song recital and the relative impersonality of a CD, and to be a success in both requires an equally big change of attitude. But here Holzmair too often feels expressively reined-in.

There are moments where he stops singing to the microphone and seems to address the listener personally, as at "Yet when you say 'I love you' " in "Wenn ich in deine Augen seh" from Dichterliebe - but these are much fewer and further between than I expected. Of course, it's better not to treat the famous "Ich grolle nicht" as a sustained rant; Holzmair's subtlety is very welcome in more impassioned songs such as this. But you can be too subtle, or too restrained. This song is supposed to represent the seething bitterness of betrayed love - Holzmair sounds as if he's never seethed in his life.

Some of the most poetic moments are actually provided by Imogen Cooper - especially the heartfelt solo epilogue to Dichterliebe, in which the piano seems to pick up the pieces after the emotional wreckage of the songs. It's one of Schumann's finest touches, and he would surely have been delighted by Cooper's balance of intensity and delicacy. There can't be many British pianists who understand this repertoire better. Beyond question, Holzmair's understanding is just as deep, but somehow he just doesn't seem to have put anything like all of it across on this disc. Could do better? I'm afraid so.