It was by coincidence that Tuesday’s Oxford Lieder Festival concert fell on Johann Mayrhofer’s 226th birthday. The Austrian poet was second only to Goethe in the number of texts chosen by Schubert, and the programme was a selection of the composer’s settings from 1817-1824. The lieder chosen for the recital fell under two themes: songs based upon classical myth, and those inspired by nature. Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper’s keen sensitivity to the poetic content of the lieder made this an impressive (if not technically spotless) recital.

Imogen Cooper and Wolfgang Holzmair © Benjamin Ealovega
Imogen Cooper and Wolfgang Holzmair
© Benjamin Ealovega

Holzmair and Cooper have been performing together for some years now, and this was reflected in their joint dramatic vision for the majority of the songs. Both showed a deep understanding of Mayrhofer’s texts, integrating the expressive subtleties of Schubert’s realisations into logical narrative arcs. This was certainly the case with “Der Zürnenden Diana”, where the initially remorseless and cheeky character of Actaeon gained depth as the song built towards Holzmair’s full-blooded delivery of his final exclamation. However, the connection was not always quite as intuitive: Cooper appeared to rush Holzmair in the idyllic “Am Strome”, and she felt slightly tentative in the opening couple of songs.

The selection of lieder encompassed a wide range of moods, and Holzmair and Cooper certainly did them justice. This was most evident in “Einsamkeit”. Composed in 1818, this song marks the poet’s passage through life: from religious contemplation to the hustle and bustle of society, through love and war, before finally retreating into nature. From the gay abandon of good company to the pathos-laden depiction of war, the pair probed the nuances of each song. Unfortunately, “Einsamkeit” came as Holzmair was starting to tire in the second half of the concert. His top notes especially felt slightly strained: given his sensitivity to the text, this was particularly noticeable. The long exposed lines of the opening section of the song felt less than effortless, and the soaring bliss of the lovers later on slightly inhibited.
Such flaws could be excused from such a performance as utterly engaging as Holzmair’s. He unfolded the narratives in a way which felt completely natural and logical, making it hard to conceive that the song should be performed any other way. The physical element of his performance was integral to the dramatic presentation: his gesticulations were greatly effective, drawing everyone inside the packed Holywell Music Room into the tales. Personal highlights were the resigned bitterness of “Philoktet” and the regal poise and growing intensity of “Freiwilliges Versinken”.

Imogen Cooper’s playing was refined, bringing out the poetic without over-indulging in Schubert’s varying moods. A case in point was her postlude to “Atys”: her flowing tempo actually intensified the sense of tragedy in its understated nature. Her interludes throughout “Einsamkeit” were crucial to the overall sense of a journey, balancing each mood (whether bawdy or reflective) with a sense of poise.

Although not technically perfect, such faults could be overlooked in view of Holzmair and Cooper’s thoughtful interpretations. The combination of Holzmair’s narrative talents and Cooper’s sympathetic contribution made this an unforgettable journey through the psyches of the characters, prompting the audience to call for a well-deserved encore.

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