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Hugo Wolf Centenary Festival

Italian Songbook
Dame Felicity Lott soprano; Olaf Bär baritone; Malcolm Martineau piano
Wigmore Hall, 6 February 2003

Wigmore Hall's Hugo Wolf Centenary Series, curated by Malcolm Martineau, got into full swing with the Italian Songbook, completed in 1896, by which time the composer was already afflicted with advancing syphilis, which brought his life prematurely to an end in 1903. There was a pre-concert talk by Richard Stokes, whose programme notes provided exactly the right sort of information. He pointed out that the German versions of anonymous Italian rispetti about the joys and tribulations of love are intensified in Heyse's translations, with their punch lines by turn humorous or poignant. He quotes Frank Walker, whose belief I share, writing in his Hugo Wolf biography that 'repetition of these songs could never stale their charm'. The music is miraculous, finding exactly the right tone for accompaniment figurations, often underpinning the structure with a steady pulse, often embracing elaborate Wagnerian chromaticism but without avoidance of cadences. The pianist sets the mood and supports a freedom in the vocal lines derived from the words and which escape the the tyranny of the barline. Wolf's song writing looks back to Schubert, sideways to Wagner and forward to Britten.

There are no greater pleasures in the song repertoire than shared recitals of these 46 miniature masterpieces, which seem to bring out the best from lieder singers and their pianists. Reviewing the first in the series, Adrian Jack, writing in The Independent, was glad that the two singers disappeared when not singing, instead of being expected to "sit about onstage, pretending to appreciate their colleague". No such problems with Dame Felicity Lott and Olaf Bär, who stood together and sang alternately from memory to their sold-out audience, with only one break for the interval. (John Steane, in the March Gramophone , wonders "what has happened" to Bär, a 'brand leader' 10 years ago; the answer is, he lives in Dresden and is singing very well, if not so often here!). Both these favourites were in excellent voice, in accord with their pianist, and did indeed appreciate and strike sparks of affection and gentle rivalry from each other, covering the gamut of emotions from amorous hyperbole to petulant derision of unfaithful and inadequate lovers. In depth exposure to Hugo Wolf's songs, many of them infrequently heard, promises to be a rewarding experience and this 2003 centenary a welcome opportunity for a timely celebration.

Spanisches Liederbuch
Christine Schäfer
soprano; Olaf Bär baritone; Eric Schneider piano
Wigmore Hall, 22 February

Moricke and Goethe Lieder
Ian Bostridge tenor; Julius Drake piano 14 February
Olaf Bär
baritone; Eric Schneider piano 24 February

These three recitals provided a banquet for Wolf enthusiasts, amongst whom I count myself. As a student I collected and devoured the recordings on 78s in the famous Hugo Wolf Society boxes, and retained vivid memories of great singers of the time, such as Gerard Husch, John McCormack and Igor Kipnis. Wolf has never become as popular to British tastes as his close friend and colleague in their younger days, Gustav Mahler, who after a long delay following his death became a leader in the symphony concert repertoire. These have subsequently been reissued on LP and CD, but not until the Wigmore Hall's Director's Festival for William Lyne has there been a comparable opportunity for saturation exposure to Hugo Wolf in live performance. Those I was able to hear were amongst the finest lieder singers in what is a glorious new age of that art, which some still find esoteric and specialised.

They have all been extensively reviewed in detail in the broadsheets and on Seen&Heard, with general approbation and little dissenting criticism, so I shall content myself with a brief general note. It was good to have a rare opportunity to hear the complete Spanish Songbook on the very day of his death 100 years ago (and my own birthday 24 years afterwards). It is something of a marathon and does not make such a comfortably enjoyable concert programme as does the Italian Songbook. The ten intense sacred songs are followed by rather too many secular songs, but with these singers there was no cause for complaint. The singers were supported by Eric Schneider who combined a firm underlying pulse with wide dynamic range, and high drama when called for, based on complete technical assurance and seizing the virtuoso requirements of the tricky postludes.

The two solo recitals were however even more satisfying experiences. Both tenor and baritone were in perfect voice and responded to full houses of afficionados. Their programmes were carefully constructed and perfectly balanced, Moricke & Goethe providing perfect foils one for the other. The three pianists participating in the Hugo Wolf Centenary Series were all excellent, it goes without saying, but strikingly individual. Julius Drake has a close ongoing partnership with Bostridge, and I had never heard them together to better advantage. Schneider interests me greatly - I had been especially impressed in a previous recital with Christine Schafer. He thrusts the piano lid wide open and his contribution can never be ignored as that of an old time accompanist. He favours a bright tone, with clarity ensuring every melodic and rhythmic point tells, but lacking any indulgence. Goerne's recital which brought the festival to a close was properly devoted mainly to familiar favourites, the excitements of the Fire-rider and the Rat-catcher matched by the tenderness of Veborgenheit, Auf ein altes Bild, Ganymede and the imperishable Anacreon's grave to finish. No encores at any of these evenings, and no under-nourishment.



© Peter Grahame Woolf