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18.10.04

Folksongs From the Austro-Hungarian Empire

This concert was attended by Jens F. Laurson in his proudly worn Lederhosen.

Tuesday, the 12th of October, the beautiful Austrian Embassy held another marvel ready for music lovers in Washington. Before an intimate and attentive crowd, The Embassy Series organized a recital with Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and North Dakotan Russel Ryan in a program with lots of Brahms and some Bartók and Janáček songs.

Wolfgang HolzmairHolzmair (see photo at left) is one of the finer lyrical baritones in both the Lieder and operatic fields. With a reasonably big voice, he can be on the dramatic end of the spectrum in his songs, as opposed to, say, the declamatory style made famous by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In that, Holzmair is more like the young German Mathias Görne. Gesticulation and facial expression play a large part in Holzmair's presentation, as does playing with the tone of his voice. The only downside to this involving style is that it makes Holzmair, a strikingly handsome man, look awfully silly at times.

The selected Brahms songs were a wonderful bunch, though not equally accessible or easily likable. None are more effective and haunting, however, than op. 32, no. 1, "Wie rafft ich mich auf," by August von Platen (who is himself famous for his Tristan poem, a heart-wrenching portrayal of personal conflict and love). The songs from the Romanzen aus Magelone-cycle (op. 33) were as splendid as Jerome Berry, the Embassy Series's director, had announced them to be. They are less typical Brahms songs and all the better for it.

Béla Bartók's Hungarian Folksongs followed, sung in German. Those who know my tastes may figure for those to have been my favorite pieces of the night and the concert's highlight. (After all, I like any program's underdog, the less popular, usually modern pieces and especially Bartók at any occasion.) And while these songs were very fine indeed, the theatrical delivery was just a bit too much for me. I'll admit that I admired the songs and performance thereof more than I loved it. Holzmair's full and sumptuous voice with impeccable intonation and leaps, a mature and rounded instrument, made up for it.

Five German Folksongs by Brahms followed—very pretty indeed—though I'd like to bet that in "Wie komm ich denn zur Tür herein" he sang the last line of every strophe in the wrong character. I am even more certain that I was the only one who noticed and cared the least bit. The Brahms led right into Six Moravian Folksongs by Janáček, sung in Czech (from memory!), which caused me appreciable problems in following the text, given that my only two Czech sentences get me two beers in a bar and slapped by any decent girl. In Janáček as in Bartók I have yet to warm up to the songs a bit more in order to love them as much as I love their string quartets, for example. A much better ambassador for these songs than Mr. Holzmair is hard to imagine, though.

The encore, two more Brahms folksongs, very warmly received by the delighted audience, led to a following reception that rounded out the event nicely. That night's reception was perhaps less outstanding than other events I've witnessed at the Austrian embassy, but the rather regular cheese and wine-plastic-cups buffet was wonderfully supplemented by staff-baked assorted sweets... which was just that personal, special note that puts the Austrian Embassy's continuously wonderful and well-presented events—be it in association with organizations like The Embassy Series or (especially) on their own—above most other foreign representations. (That Austria needs that more than many other countries could be argued by the cynic, but that's not for here.)

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