Wolfgang Holzmair

Wigmore Hall, London

Around the world, the guitar is the 20th century's preferred accompaniment to the voice. Is it surprising that Western classical music has made comparatively little use of the combination? Or does it simply confirm the music's resistance to change? Whichever, the piano remains the classical singer's companion of choice. And wonderful it is, particularly with a singer like the Austrian baritone , who's prepared to refashion the sometimes ossified decorum of a recital so as to suit his very individual platform presence.

Holzmair doesn't stand back from his material, but bends his body, holds out his hands pleadingly, losing himself in the moment. His voice is rich and warm, the slightly emphasised vibrato adding to the intimacy, and only a hard heart could resist. Holzmair's imagination is restless and leads him to some adventurous decisions about repertoire: his latest Philips CD is of Ernst Krenek's Diary of a Journey through the Austrian Alps; and for last Thursday's Wigmore Hall recital, he dispensed with piano accompaniment, opting instead for the guitar of Alexander Swete, through a programme of folksongs alongside miniatures by Schubert, Weber and Krieger.

Since his debut there in 1989, Holzmair has filled the Wigmore over and over again, yet on Thursday there was a liberal sprinkling of empty seats. Was it the decision to sing with guitar that drove the faithful away? Or was it perhaps the understandable fear that his classical training might squeeze the life out of the folksongs? In the event, Holzmair proved a relaxed interpreter, never gilding the songs' simplicity, but always according them full emotional weight. And with Swete's sweetly chiming guitar, the voice seemed more intimate than ever, as if Holzmair was gently talking directly to each one of us.

Although there were one or two pianissimos that faltered ever so slightly. Holzmair shows few signs of strain. He's not short of volume, yet he never batters the ears. In a song like Schubert's "Shepherd's lament", he wraps himself around the notes with all the intimacy of a microphone singer, but with no hint of crooning. No doubt the choice of guitar is more or less a one-off, but it paid dividends. "Mein" from Schubert's Die Schone Mullerin is usually heard with piano, but the ripples of plucked, rather than hammered strings were gently persuasive.

Swete proved a wonderfully discreet accompanist, and in two solo pieces (by Sor and Paganini) relished the chance to show off some guitar hero dexterity, but he rightly yielded to the voice. And Holzmair was smart enough to keep the evening short: the cod medievalism of Weber's "Romanze" married well with the affecting simplicity of the folk tunes, but it's easy to have too much of the Germanic equivalent of "Hey nonny nonny", and by not overfilling his programme, Holzmair left us replete but not stuffed. Looking every bit the distracted student, he wandered off, no doubt pleased that his little experiment had worked so well.

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