WOLF: Italienisches Liederbuch.
Janet Baker (mezzo); John Shirley-Quirk (baritone); Steuart Bedford (piano).
ICA Classics ICAC5076 TT: 80:13
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Lieder groupies swoon. The German Lied comprises a relatively small wedge
of the audience pie -- compared to opera, oratorio, concerto, or symphony
-- and the songs of Hugo Wolf a sliver of that. Wolf had such little appreciation
that legendary producer and aficionado Walter Legge formed the Hugo Wolf
Society, dedicated to disseminating the composer's work, especially his
Wolf, when he composed, usually did so in a white heat, going through entire
collections of poetry. However, long breaks caused by depression (and probably
syphilis) afflicted him throughout his short maturity (he died at 43, after
years of committal in an insane asylum). The Italienisches Liederbuch (Italian
songbook) was written in two bursts of activity with a four-year hiatus
between them. He ended up with 46 songs, each one of high quality.
Wolf is known for bringing Wagner into the Lied. The songs are little dramas.
However, more importantly, Wolf, an intellectual citizen of fin de
siècle Vienna, emphasizes psychology to an unprecedented
degree, at least within the German tradition, going beyond standard Romantic
attitudes. He never
specified their order, except to say that each performance should end
with No. 46, "Ich hab' in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen" (I have
a lover living in Penna), an exuberant Leporello-like catalogue aria
for a bragging
young woman. Pianist and conductor Steuart Bedford devised the order
for this particular performance. Aside from the first and last songs,
is in manuscript order, except a couple by accident. Although well translated
into German by Paul Heyse, none of these poems inspire all that much
interest on their own. Wolf's settings make them compelling.
Obviously, these songs require a higher class of singer, one who can negotiate
the melodic chromaticism and who can penetrate texts, so only the very
best singers tend to put them in their repertory. Two of the great British
singers of the last century, Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk certainly
qualify. Both have a deep and impeccable vocal technique, with a command
of color for emotional effect. Both declaim poetry with superb understanding
and taste. Hokey-ness and cheap manipulation simply can't get by them.
Both pass the test of singing in their native language, English, where
many other native singers, some very well known, do not. Treat yourself
to the Willcocks recording of Vaughan Williams's Hodie (EMI 67427), where
Baker and Shirley-Quirk, both in their vocal primes, recreate poems by
John Milton and Thomas Hardy, among others. Oh yeah, tenor Richard Lewis
is there, too.
Both Baker and Shirley-Quirk had distinctive, even borderline-odd, voices.
Trying to achieve a cello-like line, Baker often forgot that words had
consonants, but it didn't matter, since she communicated the emotions of
the texts through her command of timbre. She had a somewhat restricted
expressive range. She could portray noble, innocent, joyous, ineffably
sad, but not particularly wicked or sexy characters. Shirley-Quirk's baritone
took me some time to get used to. He still sounds to me in mid-gulp. But
he could shade a musical line with immense subtlety and always served the
composer, often lifting the music to a level I'm not sure the composer
knew was even there.
Fortunately, both singers liked to give joint recitals. This is a live
recording of one of them from the 1977 Aldeburgh Festival. How well do
they do? Baker begins in a little trouble -- a hard edge to her normally
silvery voice. Fortunately, she works out of it fairly quickly and just
gets better as the cycle continues. Apparently they inserted an intermission
after song #26. I found the second half of the recital even stronger
than the first, but that may stem from the fact that I like those songs
On the other hand, Baker blows the roof off early on in "Was der Zorn" (why
the anger?), conjuring up an entire abusive relationship between a girl
and her lover. Shirley-Quirk scores as a devastated lover in "Mir
ward gesagt, du reisest in die Ferne" (they told me you are going
far away). Steuart Bedford provides capable support, but unfortunately
the singers capture almost all of this listener's attention.
ICA Classics doesn't provide texts or translations. It claims to have them
on its web site, but after half an hour, I gave up looking. Still, for
those undeterred, a superior Lieder disc.
S.G.S. (July 2013)