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Master of lieder delivers with Schubert swan song

Baritone Wolfgang Holzmair brings German masterpieces to the Granoff Center

Schwanengesang: a swan song, a last performance before retirement, a final deed before dying. The swan song originates from the Greek mythological belief that a swan sings a unique farewell once in its life, just before its death.

“Schwanengesang” is also the title of a cycle of 14 poems set to music by Franz Schubert. The collection ­— published after his death in 1828 — lacks interior cohesion, allowing the singer to take these vignettes of music and make them whole.

Baritone Wolfgang Holzmair took to the stage at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts to perform this posthumous collection with accompanist Russell Ryan Wednesday night. In an hour and a half — with one five-minute pause — Holzmair carried the audience through his extensive range, traversing entire octave leaps and varied emotions with apparent ease and flair.

Holzmair and Ryan performed  Schubert’s “Winterreise” together on the same stage two years ago, The Herald reported at the time.

The strong rapport between the two musicians was evident from the outset — Holzmair consistently turned between the audience and the piano bench, and each vocal inflection flawlessly matched its accompaniment. As the piano became increasingly frenzied, Holzmair too became more agitated. His volume increased, to where he would almost lose control, before falling back again.

But where the piano could have, in theory, held its own against the overwhelming power and control of Holzmair’s baritone, it retained the air of a mere accompaniment. Ryan stepped back where he could have pushed Holzmair further — and yet Holzmair’s voice was strong enough to carry the performance. Perhaps this was deliberate.

The singer treated each word like a delicate piece of china. Even without speaking a word of German, the audience could catch the last word of “Kriegers Ahnung.”

“Gute nacht,” he repeated twice, as his voice lowered to a whisper and faded away entirely. He found beauty in the ugliest sounds — his emphasis on “s” and “ch,” especially harsh consonants in German, added drama and energy to the darker tone of the song. Rolled “r” sounds were melodic rather than pretentious.

In “Fruhlingssehnsucht,” Holzmair revealed an unprecedented, though still intentional, grittiness to his voice, leaving the audience in awe at his dynamic range. His vibrato cracked at one point, but it was an insignificant blip in an otherwise technically immaculate performance.

After the brief interlude 50 minutes into the performance, Holzmair launched back into his song, hollering out sudden, sharp high notes. Later, he ascended a controlled crescendo to an equal volume, but without the same anger and harshness. His voice always soared, never screeched. He took over the music, assuming it completely while maintaining Schubert’s Romantic spirit.

Holzmair’s performance could only be criticized on the level of his movements. He sang out both slow-burning and more belligerent lines with the same motions, his gaze often directed at the ground. During “Der Doppelganger,” he began standing rigidly but seemed to melt away into the music, returning to the same hunched posture and theatrical hand gestures. He spent much of the performance with his eyes squeezed shut.

In addition to the 14 songs traditionally performed in the “Schwanengesang” cycle, Holzmair added three additional pieces to his oeuvre: “Die Taubenpost” and “Im Freien D 880,” set to poems by Johann Gabriel Seidl, and “Schwanengesang D 744,” an appropriate addition with words by poet Johann Senn.

To close out the show, Holzmair began “Schwanengesang D 744” facing forward, his gaze tilted slightly upward. He receded into himself as the music built — the performance was coming to an end. His eyes widened as the music stopped short, only to creep in again. For the first time, the audience truly had the sensation of a swan song. “Schwanengesang D 744” was reminiscent, hopeful and deliberate. But instead of coming to a conclusion, it faded away to silence. A few seconds, and someone began to clap. The applause swelled, and the audience rose to its feet in waves.

It wasn’t a full house, but the resounding reception certainly sounded like one.


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