Wolfgang Holzmair: Wunderhornlieder
Early in the 19th century Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano assembled the Knaben Wunderhorn collection of German folk poems, both real and fake, in reaction against the Enlightenment and all things French. Composers, most famously Mahler, proceeded to set them in droves. In a typically enterprising programme, Wolfgang Holzmair celebrates what he terms the Wunderhorn poems’ ‘longing for simplicity and order’ through settings that range from guileless Weber and Mendelssohn to songs from the 1930s (though you might not guess it) by Erich Zeisl and Robert Schollum.
In captious mode you might point to an excess of bardic homeliness: say, in Robert Franz’s ‘Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz’ and Brahms’s ‘Der Überläufer’, where a boy laments the loss of his girl to a macho huntsman, à la Schöne Müllerin. Joseph Suder’s ‘Urlicht’ sounds like a pale simulacrum of Mahler’s. But in such sympathetic performances there are many delights here, from Mendelssohn’s bounding ‘Jagdlied’ (the wistfulness at the end nicely caught), via two wryly affectionate miniatures from Schumann’s Liederalbum für die Jugend, to Zeisl’s delicately acerbic ‘Im Frühling’, sounding like latter-day Hugo Wolf.
These days Holzmair’s distinctive, tenorish high baritone can grow tight under pressure. Schoenberg’s song of a disgruntled knight (no hint of Wunderhorn simplicity here) stretches him to the limit. But at mezzo-forte and below his voice still sounds well. And characterisation is as imaginative as ever, whether in the mingled humour and tenderness of Strauss’s ‘Für fünfzehn Pfennige’, the deft, unexaggerated story-telling of Loewe’s tinkling, dancing ‘Herr Oluf’ (encounter the Erlking’s daughter at your peril), or the gentle simplicity he brings to lullabies by Humperdinck and Karl Weigl. The two acidly comic Mahler songs are gauged to perfection by Holzmair, faithfully abetted by Thérèse Lindquist. A pity, then, to end with a serious gripe. The booklet contains texts and an illuminating essay by Gavin Plumley but criminally stints on English translations. Given the rarity of much of this repertoire, you won’t get much help from the web either. How depressing that Col Legno seems to have such scant regard for its Anglophone market.