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Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau perform Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch as part of the Barbican Presents 2017-18 season in the Barbican Hall on 16th February 2018.
18 Feb 2018

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.

Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau perform Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch as part of the Barbican Presents 2017-18 season in the Barbican Hall on 16th February 2018.

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Helmut Deutsch, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann

Photo credit: Mark Allan/Barbican


Wolf, one might say, was an Austrian composer, which is or at least was certainly to say also a German composer; yet he was born in Windischgrätz, now Slovenj Gradec. Both names for what was long a Styrian town refer to the Slovene or Wendish Graz, to distinguish it from the larger Graz. And so on, and so forth. Mitteleuropaïsch is more than a collection of disparate identities; it is an identity in itself. It certainly was in the Austrian Empire in which Wolf was born, and it certainly was in the Dual Monarchy in which he grew up. Moreover, northern Italy had long been part, to varying extents, and depending on who was, of that identity too. So too, however, had a romanticised German idea of ‘Italy’, of the Mediterranean, of the South. Look to Goethe and Liszt, for instance - or to Paul Heyse’s selection and translations of songs, as set by Wolf (not greatly, or indeed at all, to Heyse’s pleasure).

What one can say is that this idealised ‘Italy’, Tuscan rispetti and Venetian vilote could only have come from without the Italian lands. If ‘German’ constitutes at least as multifarious a multitude of sins as ‘Italian’, these songs remain very much a German evocation of lightness, of sunlight, of serenades, of a ‘love’ that is rarely, if ever that of German Romanticism, although it may well be viewed through that prism. All three performers at this Barbican recital understood that, I think: both intuitively and intellectually. At any rate, the tricky balance between Italian ‘light’, in more than one sense, and German ‘prism’ seemed almost effortlessly communicated - however much art had been required to convey such an impression.

The songbook is not a song-cycle, so to speak of ‘reordering’ is perhaps slightly misleading. At any rate, the ordering selected made good sense, grouping the book’s forty-six little songs into four groups, which, if not exactly narratives of their own, made sense as scenes or, if you will, scenas. One made connections as and when one wished; nothing was forced, much as in the music and the performances themselves. Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann opted, boldly yet not too boldly, for a staginess alive to the humour, or at least to the potential for humour without sending anything up or otherwise trying to turn the songs into something they are not. Helmut Deutsch, in general the straight man, perhaps had the ultimate moment of humour, in his piano evocation of a hapless violinist (‘Wie lange schon war immer mien Verlangen), Damrau having ambiguously prepared the way, at least in retrospect, with a lightly wienerisch account. Deutsch provided an excellent sense of structure throughout: non-interventionist perhaps, but none the worse for that. Damrau and Kaufmann, after all, were intended to be the ‘stars’ here.

In general, but only in general, Damrau’s performances - roughly alternating, yet with a few exceptions - were knowing, whilst Kaufmann’s were lovelorn. Such is the order of things in this ‘German Italy’. Metaphysics, when they reared their head - more in Wolf than in Heyse - tended to be the tenor’s. Was he right to make relatively little of them? I am not sure that right or wrong makes much sense here. Perhaps it is all, or mostly, in inverted commas anyway. There were a few occasions when I found Kaufmann, especially during the first half, somewhat generalised, but such generality remains a very superior form: more baritonal still than I can recall having heard him, yet with an ardent, show-stopping tenor, even upper-case Tenor, that puts one in mind, just in time, of his Walther (‘Ihr seid die Allerschönste’) or his Bacchus (‘Nicht länger kann ich singen’). And Damrau was perfectly capable of responding, of singing about his singing, as for instance, in ‘Mein Liebster singt am Haus’, to which Kaufmann’s ‘Ein Ständchen Euch zu bringen’ came as the perfect response, and so on. Piano and voice together in the latter song conveyed to near perfection the shallow yet genuine sexual impetuosity of youth. (Or is that just what older people think?) The lightness of a wastrel’s self-pity in ‘O wüsstest du, wie viel ich deinetwegen,’ was likewise finely judged. So too was the cruelty of his beloved in ‘Du denkst mit einem Fädchen’.

Yet, as the two archetypes, stereotypes, call them what you will, drew closer towards the end of the first half, there was genuine affection too, or so one thought. The rocking piano in ‘Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen’ suggested, without unnecessary underlining, a peace perhaps all the more interesting, or at least characteristic, for its lack of interest in passing all understanding. For, as that half had climaxed with an acknowledged role for Wolf’s Lisztian Romantic inheritance, so the piano harmonies of the second half took up from that half-destination, taking us somewhere new, briefly darker (the austere Doppelgänger flirtation of ‘Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschweiegen’) and ultimately, once again, ‘lighter’, yet perhaps never truly ‘light’. Sweetness of death (‘Sterb’ ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder’) intervened, yet was it but an act, the commedia dell’arte perhaps, or, as the Marschallin would soon have it, ‘eine wienerische Maskerad[e]’. Increasingly, neither party wished truly to resist, whilst making great play of doing so: on stage as well as in music. An air of Straussian sophistication became more marked, without ever shading into mere cynicism. If the ‘girl’ were always going to win, that was as it ‘should’ be. There were enough qualifications, or potential alternative paths and readings, though, to make one wonder. And then to wonder - ‘lightly’ or no - why one was wondering at all.

Mark Berry

Diana Damrau (soprano), Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano).

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 16 February 2018.

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