Max Kowalski Lieder – Unusual music, unusual presentation

I was not familiar with the music of Max Kowalski before listening to this new release. Kowalski was a mainly self-taught singer and composer (primarily of lieder), though professionally he was a lawyer. He survived Buchenwald, and died in London in 1956, a well-respected singing teacher and composer.

Kowalski’s output is almost exclusively lieder, and stylistically remains grounded in the early post-romantic aesthetic of the early 20th Century.

This new release from Bridge doesn’t just feature a Kowalski program; it’s a recording of a concert baritone Wolfgang Holzmair performed in 2011 for a Max Kowalski symposium.

As he explains in the liner notes, the selection and sequencing of the lieder is of paramount importance, grouping similar works together. The emotional center of the concert (and this recording) is Pierrot Lunaire, which Kowalski completed the same year as Schoenberg’s settings.

While Schoenberg set the unsettling imagery of the text to equally unsettled music, Kowalski remains firmly within tonal limits. And yet his version of Pierrot Lunaire is also exotic and unsettling in its own way.

Wolfgang Holzmair has a warm, rich baritone that seems well-suited to the repertoire. Kowalski was an intuitive melodist, and Holzmair’s fluid delivery retains some of the spontaneous nature of the music.

Highly recommended for aficionados of lieder.

Max Kowalski: Lieder
Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone; Thérèse Lindquist, piano
Bridge Records 9431

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