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Christ carrying the cross by El Greco (1600-05)
16 Sep 2010

Hugo Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch at Wigmore Hall

In this recital of thirty-four songs selected from Hugo Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch, Ian Bostridge and Angelika Kirchschlager revealed the profound emotional intensity of Wolf’s art; the concentrated ardour of their performance intimated the heightened passion and expressive angst which, as well as driving Wolf’s creative spirit, also led to persistent depression and resulted in insanity and finally death in mental asylum at the age of 42.

Hugo Wolf: Spanisches Liederbuch

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Angelika Kirchschlager, soprano; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Monday 13th September.

Above: Christ carrying the cross by El Greco (1600-05)


Religious fervour and sexual ecstasy are almost indistinguishable in these songs. Wolf was introduced to Emanuel Geibel’s and Paul Heyse’s translations of Spanish poetry in 1888, an encounter which unleashed a frenzy of creative inspiration, and which guided his musical style and techniques in surprising new directions. Vocal lines are more melodic, less declamatory, than his earlier settings of Eichendorff, Mörike and Goethe; in these Spanish songs, Wolf seems to have paid less attention to the exact intonations and rhythms of the words and instead to have submerged himself in the elated atmosphere of the poems.

The collection is divided into sacred and secular. We began with ten of the devotional songs, songs which are remarkably consistent in terms of mood, pace and texture — chordal accompaniments, processional rhythms, repeating slowly and incessantly — and which accumulate to embody the over-wrought, obsessive sentiments of the texts.

Bostridge_2010.gifIan Bostridge [Photo by Ben Ealovega]

Ian Bostridge is musically and physically suited to this repertoire. His highly nuanced style of delivery, which can at times seem over-mannered, here perfectly conveyed the mood of agonizing guilt, self-chastisement and martyrdom. Moving between pained earnestness and glorious rapture, Bostridge made effective use of his powerfully focused high timbre, subtle inflections suggesting a strained desperation, and the rich resources of a more baritonal range. Ever alert to the piquant dissonances in the accompaniment — the inexorable chromatic rises, the unexpectedly momentary clarity and light offered by a major-key resolution — his diction was precise. Tall and pale, physically responsive to the texts, he seemed to epitomise the combination mystical reverence and delight in intensely real detail so characteristic of Spanish baroque art.

‘Ach, wie lang die Seele schlummert’ (‘Ah, how long the soul has slumbered’) was particularly impressive. A tritone fall in the piano bass and the sparseness of the accompaniment at the opening of the song create a deathly, muted ambience; Bostridge’s voice sank into its lower regions, then rose and warmed startlingly in a glorious imitation of real and figurative illumination as ‘the longed-for light/breaks through and dazzles [my soul’s] eyes’. The troubled questions of ‘Herr, was trägt der Boden hier’ (‘Lord, what will grow in this soil’) were given musical shape by the piano’s rhetorical gestures, while the tenor line acquired an intense focus in reply, ‘Thorns, dear heart, for me,/ and for you a wreath of flowers’. Unease gently disturbed the surface calm, until burst forth in an explicit outburst of anxiety, ‘O my Lord, for whose head are these wreaths woven, say?’ One was reminded of the expressionist outpourings of El Greco.

Kirschlager_Angelika_2010.gifAngelika Kirchschlager [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]

Bostridge was partnered in this recital by Angelika Kirchschlager. The soprano seemed ill at ease initially, and given that she had cancelled a recital just two days before, we might assume that she was suffering from a bad cold; for her voice seemed dry and constricted at times, and her breathing laboured. ‘Mühvoll komm’ich und beladen’ (‘In toil I come, and heavy-laden’) is a tortured emotional drama, the dissonant bass-register chords of the piano’s opening capturing the despairing weariness of the opening lines, ‘In toil I come and heavy-laden,/ receive me, O haven of mercy!’ However, Kirchschlager struggled to control her intonation during the biting dissonances which permeate the song. She seemed more comfortable in the only serene, contented song in the sequence, the gentle ‘Ach, des Knaben Augen’ (‘Ah, the infant’s eyes’), where she found a warm, restful tone to convey the radiance of the mother’s love, reflected also by the major tonality and soothing consonance of the song.

The secular followed the sacred — twenty-four songs about romantic and erotic love. After the sombre stillness of so many of the sacred songs, the immediate change of style and pace was surprising: the whirling semi-quavers and exuberant trills of the triple time ‘Kinge, klinge, mein Pandero’ (‘Sound, tambourine, sound’) immediately whisking us off into another world, one of joy, desire, coquetry and mockery. If anything, it felt as if we were journeying a little too fast, as successive songs tumbled into one another with scarcely a pause; at times the singers barely had time to rise from their seats, so rapidly had pianist Julius Drake launched himself into the next song.

Many of these songs are playfully ironic and tempt the singer to indulge in some teasing play-acting; Kirchschlager clearly enjoyed the mischievousness, but in fact she was musically more at home in the more simple euphoric songs, such as ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’ (‘Cover me with flowers’); meanwhile Bostridge’s sometimes exaggerated vocal gestures aptly suggested the dark ironies of these poems. ‘Auf dem grünen Balkon’ (‘On the green balcony’) was superbly sung: the tenor savoured the self-mockery of the poet-narrator who describes women’s guiles, always ‘mixing a drop of sadness into pleasure:/ with her eyes she leads me on,/ but her finger tells me: No!’ — the slightest rhythmic hesitation wonderfully imitating the satirical effect of the punctuation here.

Julius Drake relished the complexities and variety of the piano accompaniments. Bostridge and Drake know each other well; typically, the rubatos in ‘Wer sein holdes Live verloren’ (‘He who has lost his loved one’) and the changes of pace in ‘Herz, verzage nicht geschwind’ (Heart, do not despair too soon’) were perfectly co-ordinated. Yet Kirchschlager seemed a little rushed, as at times Drake allowed the admittedly soloistic writing for the piano to encourage him to dominate and lead, when the suffering soprano might have been pleased to have a little more time to breathe.

It was not until the twentieth century that the true significance of El Greco’s dramatic art was appreciated and understood. Wolf is more fortunate in having singers of this calibre and conviction to remind us what a startlingly original composer of lieder he was.

Claire Seymour

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