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Recordings

Hugo Wolf: Prometheus — Orchesterlieder
12 Jun 2006

WOLF: Prometheus — Orchesterlieder

Like other nineteenth-century composers, Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) orchestrated some of his Lieder, and his contributions to the genre of Orchesterlieder are impressive.

Hugo Wolf: Prometheus — Orchesterlieder

Juliane Banse, soprano;Dietrich Henschel, baritone; Duetsches Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin, Kent Nagano, director.

Harmonia Mundi HMC901837 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

He scored only twenty-four of his songs for voice and orchestra, including pieces from three collections, his Mörike-Lieder (13 Lieder), the Spanisches Liederbuch (4 Lieder), and the Goethe-Lieder (7 Lieder). Wolf’s inspiration for scoring these songs seems to be connected to the composer’s pursuit of opera as a means of expression. While that motivation seems to have culminated in the opera Der Corregidor, the orchestral Lieder he left should not be regarded as mere exercises in orchestration, but are remarkable for the details he elicited when he took the piano accompaniments into the orchestral score. This recording contains all of Wolf’s efforts in this genre, with the pieces divided between two fine singers, the soprano Juliane Banse and the baritone Dietrich Henschel, who offer some fine interpretations of the music. Both singers are well-suited to this repertoire; just as their recordings of Lieder with piano accompaniment are effective, they work well in the larger canvas of the orchestral settings.

Those familiar with the piano versions of these songs know the music, but these pieces are significant for the distinctive orchestrations that Wolf contributed to enhance the meaning and suggest some aspects of interpretations. When compared with the orchestral versions, the dynamic markings found in the Lieder with piano accompaniment seem more relative than the volume implicit in the scoring of “Prometheus,” for example. In that piece the volume and intensity of the orchestra not only underscores the vocal line, but enhances its focus. Wolf is not merely forceful, but sensitive to the timbres he can elicit from the full orchestra. Dietrich Henschel delivers a convincing performance of this particular piece, which relies, as times, on sonorities reminiscent of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. In this venue, the song, which is used as the title of this recording, stands well alongside the version with piano accompaniment as a separate and yet powerful conception of the music.

In contrast the heaven-storming sounds of “Prometheus,” Wolf demonstrates a sense of delicacy with “Mignon” (the famous text “Kennst du das Land” that others, including Schubert and Schumann had already set) with a scoring that contains some carefully place woodwinds and horns to intersect the strings that carry the piece. This recording of “Mignon” benefits from the careful phrasing and sense of text that Juliane Banse brings to the music. Kent Nagano is likewise sensitive to the orchestral palette that demands a deft hand. The sometimes darker colors Wolf used in the latter part of “Mignon” contribute to the resolution of song in the final lines that are scored more brightly in which the singer points the way to another world.

The colorful orchestration of “Der Rattenfänger” suggests some techniques that Richard Strauss used in a contemporary tone poem, like Till Eulenspiegel, and suggest further the deft scoring that Wolf contributed to these versions of his songs. Not only are these settings of the Goethe-Lieder of interest, but a piece like “In dem Schatten meiner Löcken” from the Spanisches Liederbuch becomes, perhaps, a bit more dramatic in the orchestral version as the voice interacts with the orchestral in a structure that is comprised of a melodic line linked to its accompaniment. The scoring in these and other pieces is, perhaps, denser than the textures associated with the orchestral songs of Gustav Mahler or Richard Strauss. In the fuller orchestrations, though, Wolf not only looks backward on some of the sonorities associated with German opera, but he also is able to extract from the larger forces some refinements that anticipate, in a way, the approach Arnold Schoenberg would take in his cycle Gurrelieder.

With, for example, “Denk’ es, o Seele,” Wolf reinforces in his scoring some of the colorful harmonies that can lost in the piano accompaniment, depending on the emphasis of the performer. In this song Henschel uses the spaces between the interjections of the orchestral to bring out his vocal line in executing this piece. Similarly, Banse shapes the line of “Gebet” as she plays off the orchestra. This resembles in some ways the way that Wolf structured “Karwoche,” with timbres reminiscent of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Yet “In der Frühe,” Wolf tends to be more expressionist in his use of orchestral colors, and Nagano brings out the careful scoring effectively.

All of the pieces on this recording are for solo voice except for the Mörike setting (from the novel Maler Nolten) entitled “Der Feuerreiter,” which Wolf scored for chorus and orchestra. An extended piece, “Der Feuerreitter” sounds more like an excerpt from a cantata than an orchestral song, and it has found its way into various concert programs. In fact, a performance of this very piece is part of a recently released retrospective CD of Daniel Barenboim’s tenure as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who included it in the repertoire he led with that organization. A larger piece because of its use of chorus, “Der Feuerreiter” is also impressive, with Wolf’s use of orchestra underscoring the drama implicit in his setting of the text.

In fact the commentator Habbakuk Traber refers to “Der Feuerreiter” as one of the two great ballads in this collection, with the other being the song “Prometheus.” In making such an assessment, Traber aptly describes these pieces and the other Orchesterlieder as being “between epic and drama,” a perspective that may have been in mind when Wolf decided to score these pieces from his other Lieder. The term “epic” seems best understood qualitatively, rather than the formal sense, with the love songs Wolf chose to orchestrate being, perhaps, have a slightly stronger emotional pitch than some of his other settings. Notwithstanding such a distinction, in creating these settings, Wolf certainly made the pieces that he had originally composed with piano accompaniment into impressive orchestral compositions.

The performers, Banse, Henschel, and Nagano each demonstrate their commitment to this demanding repertoire, which presents on a single CD all of Wolf’s orchestral Lieder. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (founded under this name in 1993) brings a burnished quality to the performances, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin is adept rendering “Der Feuerreiter.” This is a fine recording that adds to the discography of Romantic Orchesterlieder, a genre that certainly deserves attention for its expansion of the German song beyond the traditional bounds of the solo recital with piano accompaniment. Those who know Wolf’s Lieder will want to explore the fine performances.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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