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Lieder's Dynamic Duo


BENJAMIN IVRY features Mitsuko Shirai and Hartmut Holl

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Brahms 21 Lieder. Copyright (c) Capriccio

The reader will notice that I refer as much to Holl as to Shirai in this article. This is one of the rarer virtues of their recordings. Listeners do not get a sense that one person is 'deferring' to the other, as in so many recordings where the pianist is afraid to offend, as Gerald Moore codified for ever by asking 'Am I Too Loud?' Holl is never too loud but can be as loud as the music invites him to be. Thus in their Brahms recording from 1987, there is a real sense of dual effort, with Shirai's voice of particular beauty and radiance in this repertoire. Her intensity in the song, Der Tod, das ist die kuhle Nacht, is but one highlight. Heine describes utter lassitude, followed by mention of a nightingale perching on a branch outside the poet's bedroom window. Brahms' song is a masterpiece of intensity, but never have I heard the thrilling effect Shirai obtains when describing how the bird 'sings loudly of love'. Likewise, in a Brahms' song like Feldeinsamkeit, also a meditation on nature and the solitude of the individual. Shirai makes a personal impression of great force. No doubt her own devotion to the countryside makes up part of the message, but performance at this level seems to transcend the artist, and reach something eternal. Admirers of Dame Janet Baker in this repertoire might be advised to listen to how an impassioned pianist makes for unforgettable results on this CD.

Like Baker, Shirai's admirable sobriety can refresh familiar material like Schubert's Die junge Nonne, which is featured on a 1988 Schubert CD. Here the Shirai-Holl duo offer nothing of the quaint Biedemeyer possibilities of the song, giving us instead a message of passionately convincing religious dedication. When the subject is human passion, as in a 1989 Liszt CD with songs like Es muss ein Wunderbares sein and Freudvoll und leidvoll, the message is equally direct. And Liszt himself is redeemed as a lieder composer, underrated despite fascinating early efforts by Bernac and Poulenc to popularize his songs.

2 x Winterreise. Copyright (c) Capriccio

In 1991 the Shirai-Holl duo produced one of their most intriguing achievements, '2 X Winterreise', with one CD of Schubert's great song cycle, and another of the music played by Holl and violist Tabea Zimmermann, with Muller's poems read by Peter Hartling. Holl chooses his collaborators with care, and favors those who share his interest in endless rehearsals and dedicated continuity. Tabea Zimmermann is one of the most sensational string talents on the European scene, with a creamy tone that has caused her to be called the Kathleen Ferrier of viola players. She has worked for many years with the Shirai-Holl duo and in 1995 released a CD of somewhat rare repertory for voice, viola, and piano. Tabea Zimmermann's playing of Schubert's melodies is therefore of high interest, and the exercise of presenting the poems and songs minus voice, artistically valid. Shirai and Holl explained that their intention was to restore the strangeness to Schubert's tragic cycle. So many Winterreise recordings have appeared in recent years it seems the only artists not offering their own versions are Luciano Pavarotti and Vanessa Mae. However, that might happen one day. The idea was to remove Schubert songs from their familiar context as monuments of music, giving them their angst-ridden original feeling. For this, Holl achieved an intense performance that I would liken to the quick march to Calvary that opens Hermann Scherchen's magnificently odd recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Questions of how fast or slow music masterpieces should be performed usually neglect the essential question of expressivity. Those who criticized Scherchen's fast tempos -- and they included singers on his recording like tenor Hugues Cuenod -- may have been unaware of Albert Schweitzer's admonition that the Passion's opening chorus should reflect the brutal speed of a prisoner's march and not a cosy or comfortable chorale. In a similar fashion, by presenting Schubert's existential victim on his road to the void, the Shirai-Holl interpretation reaches emotional and dramatic levels rarely matched anywhere. Apart from the Pears/Britten Winterreise, there is also the Ian Partridge/Richard Burnett version on Amon Ra. And a late recording by Aksel Schiotz as a baritone, for its expression of pain and anguish, although the Schiotz estate refuses to reprint this document because the singer's voice in his last years was marred by illness. Shirai, by contrast, is in full vocal flower, and engineer Teije van Geest outdoes himself in capturing the voice and piano with uncanny vividness.

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Copyright © 19 March 2000 Benjamin Ivry, New York, USA