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Wolf: Italian Songbook / Lichti, Robbin, De'ath

Wolf / Lichti / Robbin / De'ath
Release Date: 09/14/2010 
Label:  Analekta   Catalog #: 29956   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hugo Wolf
Performer:  Catherine RobbinDaniel LichtiLeslie De'Ath
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WOLF Italienisches Liederbuch • Christoph Prégardien (ten); Julia Kleiter (sop); Hilko Dumno (pn) • CHALLENGE CC72378 (75:40 Text and Translation)

WOLF Italienisches Liederbuch • Catherine Robbin (mez); Daniel Lichti (bbar); Leslie De’Ath (pn) • ANALEKTA AN 2 9956 (74:39)

Though he completed one opera and left fragments of two others, and though he wrote other stage music, choral music, chamber music, and symphonies, Hugo Wolf (1860–1903) is known for a serenade and his songs. Perhaps it’s just me, or the vagaries of where I have lived, but, though his songs frequently come up on recordings, I don’t recall ever being near a Wolf Read more class="TIMES">Liederabend. I have always regretted this because he is one of the most-interesting, even compelling, song composers of the latter part of the 19th century. Like Schumann in 1840, Wolf had a febrile burst of creativity in 1888–89, composing the Mörike, Eichendorff, and Goethe songs and the Spanisches Liederbuch. After 1896, when depression and syphilis wreaked their final toll on body and mind, he wrote almost nothing.


The Italienisches Liederbuch appeared in two parts: Volume 1, with 22 songs, was written in 1890–91 and published in 1892; Volume 2, with 24 songs, was written in five weeks in 1896 and came out later that same year. Importantly, the latter was published together with the first part to show it was one set. One of the intriguing, indeed, provocative, things about it is that, at a time when concert music generally and the parts thereof were getting longer, Wolf pared his settings down to their merest expressive essentials, something Anton Webern later appreciated. Coupled with inventive and adventurous accompaniments, these songs seemed quirky then to some, and seem so still to others, but there are few composers who have come so close to integrating text and music. Perhaps Schumann of his predecessors comes the closest and, indeed, though Wolf professed deep attachement to Wagner’s music, it is Schumann who seems to exert the strongest effect in these songs.


The texts are taken from translations of Italian folk poetry by Paul Heyse. Importantly, as Leslie De’Ath, the booklet annotator and accompanist for Robbin and Lichti notes, Wolf did not intend simply to write accompaniments to folk melodies. Indeed, it seems clear that Wolf essentially took these texts as German poems. Though there are clearly some with a male voice to them, some with a female voice, and some that could be sung by either, De’Ath sees no “cycle” in the traditional sense of the word.


There is, however, a sense that there is something called the Italienisches Liederbuch, and that if one performs something with that title, one has to do all the songs, in whatever order. There seems general agreement in practice that the songs should be divided by their texts and tessitura between a male and a female singer, and there is substantial agreement upon which go to whom. I don’t know if this represents the original performance practice of these songs. Certainly these two new recordings do not follow the published order, nor do they agree in their final order, or on who should sing what.


These matters are relevant to any discussion of this collection of songs because they place different questions in front of us. We are not asked to consider the whole in terms of the negotiation of a narrative, as with Schubert’s cycles, or of the cumulative effect and success of a musical argument, as with Schumann or Berlioz, say. Rather, our aesthetic response is one stage removed; we are asked to consider if the choices made here have been successful in creating a coherent recital of songs by Hugo Wolf to Paul Heyse texts.


Christoph Prégardien and Julia Kleiter have ordered their program roughly from light to dark. Instead of beginning with the first song in the book, “Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken,” itself a fairly sunny text, Prégardien starts with “Ein Ständchen Euch zu bringen,” which, though it has a rather complex accompaniment, underlines the song character of what is to follow. Lichti puts “Ein Ständchen” three-quarters of the way through the recital, among a group of bantering songs. In the recordings here, the brighter sound on Challenge and the directness of Hilko Dumno’s accompaniment emphasize the lightness of the text, while the darker Analekta recording and slightly heavier weight of Lichti’s sound mirrors the wild harmonic shifts in the accompaniment, which often suggest a subversive comment on the words.


Robbin and Lichti have chosen to follow the order used by Seefrid and Fischer-Dieskau in a Salzburg recital in 1958. This puts that first song first. That song, sung by Robbin, has a fairly straightforward text and accompaniment, which eases us into what is to follow. Lichti follows Robbin with a dark “Nicht länger kan ich singen,” and here is the point at which we can see the two differing approaches offered by this pair of recordings. Lichti and Robbin make us aware from the beginning of the quirkiness, even the wonderful oddness, of Wolf’s settings of these relatively simple texts. Nothing musical can be taken for granted. Prégardien, on the other hand, sets “Nicht länger” quite deeply into the cycle, among the darker texts, to be sure, but sings it almost casually. Each version has a reasonable structural coherence, and each is a good example, too, of how much each accompanist is at one with the singer.


It comes down to the singing, then. Both recordings have virtues and defects. Prégardien, Kleiter, and Dumno take a lighter view of the book than do Robbin, Lichti, and De’Ath. Of the singers, Lichti gives a consistent and satisfying reading of his songs that, while in no way ponderous, suggests a weight to what he says that Prégardien only occasionally catches. Prégardien is sometimes pressed on the top, but has a full and rich sound in the middle and lower part of the voice, which is where most of his singing takes place. Kleiter has a light voice and this suits her view of the texts. Robbin’s voice is quite dark and, alas, afflicted with a wobble that one will either accept or not. The Challenge recording is spacious and the piano, alas, a bit brittle, while Analekta has recorded the singers close up. This latter perspective has not particularly helped the rather muddy bass of De’Ath’s instrument.This noted, there is pleasure to be found in both of these recordings, and I like the sound and sensibility of Daniel Lichti, not new to these pages but long absent.


As near as I can tell, however, few performances of these songs have taken them as a cycle, in the sense that they are to be begun at the beginning and gone straight through to the end in the published order (though there seems to be a penchant for ending with the last of them, “Ich hab’ in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen”).


If, however, one were to sing the songs in the order in which they were published, an order one must presume of which Wolf approved, something else becomes possible, or at least visible. Though neither part of the book is arranged strictly chronologically, there is a clear stylistic break between those from 1890–91 and those from 1896. This is not typographical news. However, ignoring that break, as is done in most cases by mixing songs from one part into the other, means one also ignores some interesting juxtapositions Wolf has made. For example, the first and last songs of the first part, though not the last written, were written a day apart, and placed in their initial and final positions, suggesting that Wolf saw them as containing the songs in between. The first is “Auch kleine Dinge” and the last is “Ein Ständchen Euch zu bringen.” The latter is the most extensive song in the group but, after intervening songs of considerable complexity, it returns us to the relatively more open accompaniment of the first song. The second part of the book opens with the text “Was für ein Lied soll dir gesungen werden,” the last song written for the whole collection, and reminds us that singing itself is a large part of what these songs are about. There is a tendency for the initial accompaniments to get more complex as we get into the book, but to lighten up for the last song, a parody of Leporello’s catalog aria. Absence of a narrative does not mean absence of a coherent seqeunce. I was delighted to discover while writing this that I am in good company in this view, for Graham Johnson came to this same conclusion for his 1994 recording with Felicity Lott and Peter Schreier (Hyperion/Helios).


A further issue no one seems to have even considered, though, is whether or not the Italienisches Liederbuch can or should be sung by one singer. It is indubitable that some of the poems are in the mouths of women and others in those of men, and it seems to be a romantic given that the singer of a text is the embodiment of the character uttering that text. But, must “Der Erlkönig,” for example, be sung by a man? Cannot a singer be an objective teller, and inform us that the child was dead in his father’s arms? (There are, to be sure, a couple of Heyse’s texts that are clearly uttered by a woman.) There is a legitimate performance argument to be made that, since the songs here are all short, even brief, the variety offered by several voices makes them easier to listen to straight through, but I wonder if there is not an equally interesting case to be made for a single voice performing both sets, in the order in which Wolf arranged them. It would be useful to find out.

FANFARE: Alan Swanson
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Works on This Recording

1. Italienisches Liederbuch by Hugo Wolf
Performer:  Catherine Robbin (Mezzo Soprano), Daniel Lichti (Bass Baritone), Leslie De'Ath (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1891-1896; Vienna, Austria 

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