WOLF: Italienisches Liederbuch.
Janet Baker (mezzo); John Shirley-Quirk (baritone); Steuart Bedford (piano).
ICA Classics ICAC5076 TT: 80:13

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 songs.

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, nothing 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 more. 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)