There’s no sense in beating about the bush: this is an outstanding Mahler recital and one, moreover, in which the quality and perception of the piano playing gives as much pleasure as the excellent singing and interpretation of Wolfgang Holzmair.
In fact, since all too often a review of a disc such as this focuses primarily on the singer - I’ve been guilty of that myself - let’s start by discussing the contribution of Charles Spencer. Mahler was merciless to his pianist in writing accompaniments that were almost always quasi-orchestral in nature - and he later orchestrated many of these songs. Actually, he went further, incorporating some of them into his symphonies, either in whole or in part. Prime examples of this latter point are Des Antonius zu Padua Fischpredigt and Urlicht which became respectively the third and fourth movements of the Second Symphony. By chance, just a day or so before reviewing this disc I’d completed a review of performances of the first three symphonies conducted by Lorin Maazel so the orchestral sound of this music was firmly in my head. I can honestly say that such is the skill of Charles Spencer that not once did I find myself longing to hear the orchestra. I think he’s especially successful with his beautifully pointed accompaniment to Des Antonius zu Padua Fischpredigt but Urlicht is excellent also, with genuine poetry in the playing. I was just as impressed with his playing in some of the military songs. He gives a fine account of the piano part in Revelge, which is truly orchestral in reach. The doom-laden accompaniment to Der Tamboursg’sell is highly atmospheric - and the central piano interlude is played with great feeling - while Spencer’s role is just as important as Holzmair’s in distilling a tremendous atmosphere in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. In short, I don’t think Holzmair could have wished for a better or more imaginative partner.
As for Holzmair himself, his singing gave me enormous pleasure throughout this recital. He displays an acute ability to characterise the songs while the sheer sound of his voice falls on the ear very pleasingly, although there are several occasions when he deliberately hardens, or even coarsens, his tone for dramatic effect. When he does so, most notably in some of the military songs, the effect is always well judged and apposite: it’s never overdone. Elsewhere, however, his tone is smooth, as in Rheinlegendchen into which he eases winningly and which he inflects charmingly. Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald allows him to display how well produced is the top register of his voice; he gives a super, performance of this song, the expressiveness beautifully judged. Arguably even better is Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, which I’ve already mentioned. Here Holzmair’s line and legato are first rate and, once again, the top of his voice is in fine condition. This is one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of the recital.
Holzmair’s characterisation is excellent yet never overdone. I appreciated the colouring and even the readiness deliberately to coarsen the tone that’s displayed in Revelge. This song starts off jauntily but becomes increasingly despairing and Holzmair brings it vividly to life. There’s more effective characterisation in Trost im Unglück and in a gripping account of Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz’. In a slightly lighter vein he’s an engaging storyteller in Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen but he follows this with a moving lament for the soldier’s dead sweetheart in Nicht wiedersehen! while Der Tamboursg’sell is harrowing. In summary, Holzmair is excellently alive to the different moods of these songs and is convincing whatever the context - and so too is Charles Spencer.
With vivid, totally secure singing and marvellously attuned piano playing this is a deeply satisfying recital. There are some splendid Mahler performances here.