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Hugo Wolf
21 May 2009

Lieder and Opera meet in Hugo Wolf

Lieder and opera are different worlds. But understanding the differences helps us appreciate what makes each form distinct. Hugo Wolf’s songs come close to bridging the genres. They’ve been described as “miniature operas” where dramas are distilled into compact form.

Hugo Wolf : Italienisches Liederbuch — Wigmore Hall, London

Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Mojca Erdmann (soprano), Gerold Huber (piano)


The Wigmore Hall is hallowed ground for Lieder. Built in 1901 for Bechstein, it is one of the world’s great recital halls, where many great singers have appeared, even though it seats only 450. It’s the ambience that draws them. They’d make more money in a big arena, but the Wigmore Hall is a special experience. It’s small enough that interaction between performers and audience is direct and intimate. This is the ethos that makes Lieder so special. It’s intensely personal and nuanced : song through a microscope to speak, but imbued with warmth and feeling.

Christian Gerhaher is a favourite with the Wigmore Hall audience. On this evening Anna Netrebko and Dimitri Hvorotovsky were scheduled to sing elsewhere in town, impacting on sales, so the Wigmore Hall wasn’t sold out as usual. Gerhaher was singing Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, with his regular pianist, Gerold Huber and a young soprano, Mojca Erdmann.

The 46 songs in the collection form a narrative, or even a cycle. Together, they form a kaleidoscope of “Italian” life, romanticized through Austro-German ears.. Hugo Wolf never fulfilled his dream of going to Italy, but each song is full of vividly imagined incident. Dissolute monks seduce girls whose mothers trust men in robes, a girl longs for “older men” – aged 14!. Each song is like a moment in a larger story. Der schöne Toni’s eating himself to death because Tonina has dumped him, and a man’s heart jumps clean out of his chest, running off to see his lover.

Plenty of drama, then, in these songs, which Wolf plays up exuberantly with witty piano commentary. They lend themselves to more dramatic treatment than do more introspective Lieder. Indeed, much of the impact would be lost if they were performed without a lively sense of fun.

Gerhaher was in good form. His voice is richly resonant, yet flexible enough that he takes Wolf’s tricky rhythms with ease. Yet these songs are still fundamentally, Lieder, where the action is inward. Gerhaher was most impressive in songs where the singer has to hint at deeper mysteries. For example, Schon streck’t ich aus im Bett, where the lover jumps out of bed to play his lute. Wolf sets the last stanzas with a strange, meandering lilt which evokes the strumming of the lute but also the text which pointedly mentions that the singers has walked away from many girls, his music “wafted away in the wind”. It’s no serenade.

Lieder is private, almost silent expression. There’s no orchestra, set or plot to compete with, so the dynamics are different. Mojca Erdmann is young, who’s still having to prove herself with her voice, so naturally she’s more inclined to a declamatory approach that highlights the technical side of her singing. Her flourishes in ‘Ich hab’ in Penna’ would sound impressive in the theatre, but overwhelm the balance in the song. True, the song’s about a girl bragging about her many admirers, but it’s more effective with a touch of subtlety.

As the first song in the set goes, ‘Auch kleine Dinge’, “even small things can delight”. “Think only of the rose”, it continues in delicate tones, “it’s small but smells sweet”.

Anne Ozorio

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