At last Naxos seems to be on a winner in its Schubert series. Given that the competition is so intense, they had two choices: either to produce something so cheap it would undercut its rivals, or go upmarket and produce something of genuine quality. With this release they are choosing the latter course. Holzmair’s warm, Austrian-inflected baritone is excellent in Schubert, though those who think only in terms of Fischer-Dieskau’s more Teutonic style may not take to it. However, Schubert wasn’t German. Holzmair’s gentler, more lyrical ambience captures the composer’s natural character very well indeed.
This disc is part of a newish Naxos series, curated by Ulrich Eisenlohr, gradually building up to a complete edition of the songs organized by theme. This particular disc thus highlights the poets of the Göttingen Hainbund: Matthias Claudius, Ludwig Hölty and Leopold Graf zu Stolberg. Taking their name from a poem by Klopstock, Der Hügel und der Hain (the hill and the grove) they sought an approach to poetry that was based on simple, direct "sensibility" of feeling. It was a departure from the more rigid classicism of the earlier eighteenth century, and a precursor of Romanticism. Though the poems may be straightforward and strophic, they have a natural grace which Schubert had an affinity with. Holzmair adopts a similar approach, singing with an easy, unforced candour that does not overpower the freshness of the settings.
For example, listen closely to Der Tod und das Mädchen, where Holzmair’s grasp of vocal colouring is superb. At one moment he’s singing the fast-spaced, almost breathless lines, then reciting words as if imitating the slow tolling of a bell of death. Then his voice tenderly shapes high notes "Sei gutes Muts "while effortlessly descending again to a quiet, low register. Vividly, and with a minimum of elaboration, he creates a dialogue between the maiden and a benign, gentle spectre of death. In Totengräberlied, his clear articulation of the words sharpen the colours of the vocal line, adding a sardonic edge appropriate to the poem. This is beautiful clear singing, unmannered and tender, utterly in keeping with Schubert’s settings, and indeed with the sensibility of his poets. Holzmair is far too intelligent a singer not to have studied texts, scores and background before shaping his interpretations. Indeed, in his other career as an academic he is noted for promoting the beauties of Austrian and South German poets and composers. This is beautiful singing on its own terms. After months of immersing in Fischer-Dieskau, Holzmair’s graceful, naturalistic and very personal style is refreshing. Of course I love Fischer-Dieskau, but it is important to keep listening to different voices, particularly when one is as original and intuitively attuned to the genre as this.
If there is a fault, it lies in the grouping of the songs themselves, which are mainly of a charming but weightless character. Some could be transposed for harpsichord or fortepiano with little loss of impact as Eisenlohr proves by using fortepiano. Holzmair treats each song with dignity, however. In Abendlied (der Mond ist aufgegangen), where he expresses an almost palpable sense of wonder at the sight of moonrise. It highlights the vocal line against the fairly mechanical piano line. Easily the most famous song on this set is the lovely Auf dem Wasser zu Singen. Holzmair is in his element, his voice gliding over the long, soaring lines, while the piano part plays circular figures. Almost as famous is Seligkeit, where if anything Holzmair is even more of a natural. He adds delicate melismas that reflect the grace notes on the piano. Sparkling along, they progress the blissful character of the song. That final "Blieb’ ich ewig hier" is heartfelt.
Eisenlohr is a good pianist, but one whose abilities can dwarf less accomplished singers. Here, he and Holzmair are an excellent match. He writes decent liner notes, too. What a pity that marketing constraints meant that he could only do justice to the first song. Nonetheless, this disc is far and away the best in this current Naxos series, one that experienced Schubert collectors will appreciate. I sincerely hope that Naxos will go for top quality like this more often, and explore other areas of Holzmair’s repertoire. It would be a fruitful collaboration for both.