Robert Holl/Andras Schiff

Schubert Lieder

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 24 March 2007 5 stars

Robert Holl

Perfection is rare to come by in the concert hall, but Robert Holl and András Schiff achieved just that in their recital of Schubert songs. It is a great loss that this concert was not recorded.

The eleven songs performed range from the year 1816 (D.361) to 1828 (D.938), that is from Schubert's nineteenth year until the year of his untimely death at the age of thirty-one. The theme of choice for these particular songs seems to have been two-fold: they appear to be united by their subject matter, and the writers of the poems set to music by Schubert were lesser known poets (such as Schober, Senn, Mayrhofer) but friends of the composer. The songs deal with topics such as loneliness, longing, death, darkness, pain, the stars and moon, but also with consolation, even if through death.

Schubert treats his texts with great respect; he considers the meaning as a whole but also the individual words. Bass-baritone Robert Holl interpreted every musical note as well as every word with the utmost care. András Schiff put himself entirely in the service of the singer, of the music and also of the words. Indeed, his piano playing on this occasion was an exemplary (and almost heartbreakingly beautiful) demonstration of word painting on the piano. When the word 'zither' appeared in the song, Schiff played the piano as if it was a zither ('Pilgerweise', D.789). The word 'solemn' prompted majestic piano playing; in 'harmonies will enfold me' Schiff emphasized Schubert's magical harmonies, while Holl slightly swayed his whole body when singing the words 'sweetly engulfed' ('Todesmusic', D.758). In 'Totengraber's Heimweh' (D.842) Schiff's emphasis on the short three-note left hand motives brought the grave digger's anxiety to the fore, whilst Holl slightly bowed his head and upper body during 'Down into the deep grave' and swayed forward in the final 'I come' resolution of the grave digger's death wish. The lark of 'Sehsucht' (D. 516) was evident in Schiff's light-touch birdlike trills and his very gentle hammer-like sounds were beautiful in 'hammer no more' ('Der Winterabend', D.938).

Holl's artistry, including his vocal technique, is extraordinary. His pitching is not only rock-solid but he has full control of expressive intonation (that is, very slight flattening and sharpening of pitches as an interpretative tool). He not only sings but also recites his words. Holl's command of vocal colours and emotional range results in a very rich variety of sounds. Not only does he not sing consecutive notes the same way but his vocal nuances assure that even a single note is often varied. In 'Ach, dass er hinweggemusst' (Alas, that he had to depart) - from 'Einsamkeit', D.620 - the word 'Ach' had a lifetime of sorrow. Holl makes each Schubert song seem like a whole opera and I am sure he performs his operatic roles with the same nuances which he brings to Schubert's songs. If only I could hear his Hans Sachs, Gurnemanz and the others.

Sadly, the audience was far too eager to applaud these two great artists. Schiff's hands were still over the piano and Holl was still in the world of his song both after 'Einsamkeit' and after an encore, when - not taking any notice of the artists still at work - the audience enthusiastically (or rudely?) applauded. Could we have concert hall requests not only about mobile phones but also about allowing the artists to conclude their pieces in silence?

By Agnes Kory