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Lieder's Dynamic Duo


BENJAMIN IVRY features Mitsuko Shirai and Hartmut Holl

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Given this general disdain for the historical statement, it is all the more important to pay attention to great recording artists when they are still active. For the past 15 years, a couple of performers based in Germany have made a signal series of lieder recordings: mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai and pianist Hartmut Holl create recordings at such a high level that any age in which they are productive must be called a golden age of lieder interpretation. Their CDs of Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Berg, Schoenberg and others have all been made for the small label Capriccio. Like the duos of Pears/Britten and Bernac/Poulenc, Shirai and Holl have worked together with sustained intensity, choosing their other musical colleagues with care and taste. Like Pears and Britten but unlike Bernac/Poulenc, they also share a domestic life.

Mr. and Mrs. Holl met in Stuttgart in the 1970s when both were studying at the Conservatory. Holl was a student activist and as a pianist tended to disdain singers as being large people who made a lot of noise. However, he met the diminutive Ms. Shirai, who was born in Japan but had quickly mastered excellent German, and found her not only svelte but intelligent: they began conversing about Albert Camus's Myth of Sisyphus, and the conversation is still going on over 20 years later. As a student of the rather traditional composer and accompanist Hermann Reutter, Holl soon had the opportunity of playing piano for the master classes of the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a highly demanding taskmaster, to put it mildly. Not only did Schwarzkopf approve of Holl's playing, but she further praised his performances with Shirai, calling their achievement 'unique' in our time. Debate may rage over Dame Elisabeth's personal history, but no one has ever doubted that she is gifted with an exact ear.

In the early 1980s Holl was taken on as official accompanist for the famous baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the most recorded singer in history, with over one thousand LP-length recordings to his credit. For 14 years, Holl accompanied Fischer-Dieskau in what many see now as an Indian summer of Fischer-Dieskau's long career. He was sometimes tempted to perform and record with pianists who were not full masters of the accompanist's art, like Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and most disastrously Vladimir Horowitz. But for the most part, it was Holl's combination of musical sensitivity with a capacity for drama and spiky originality when the song called for it, that grace the baritone's last recordings. A recent Warner Music Vision video about Fischer-Dieskau (23031-3) is marred by the ludicrously adulatory comments by Bruno Monsaingeon. Yet this puffery is redeemed by a second cassette featuring a live Schubert recital with Hartmut Holl ( very discreetly credited on the video package). Although on his best behavior for the cameras, there is still enough of Holl's artistry visible to see he's universally admired in the singing world.

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Copyright © 18 March 2000 Benjamin Ivry, New York, USA