WOLF: Spanisches Liederbuch; Italienisches Liederbuch = Birgid Steinberger, sop./ Wolfgang Holzmair, bar./ Michaela Selinger, mezzo-sop./ Russell Ryan, piano/ Georg Beckmann, piano – Bridge 9378A/C (3 CDs), TT: 3:02:40 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Though Hugo Wolf was to lament the fact that, even in his lifetime he was pegged as a composer of songs, at best a minor occupation among composers (the adoration of great lieder composition and its interpretation is mainly something established in the twentieth century), his focus remained, apart from his several operas and a few miscellaneous pieces, precisely on the lieder. Later on the public would not be as critical of a man whose concentration fell on these “smaller” forms, and today Wolf is regarded as one of the pre-eminent composers of lieder, mentioned in the same breath as Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms.
There are good reasons for this; though he tended towards a more “Wagnerian” mentality in many ways, he was a classicist at heart and truly did advance the art of song writing by leaps and bounds. Some of his more profound efforts were dedicated to the more famous and traditionally respected poets like Morike, Eichendorff, and Goethe. Yet the pinnacle of his art resides in the two “cycles” set forth here, the Spanish Song Book and the Italian Song Book. Perhaps I should not have quoted “cycles” (whoops, did it again) as they really are cycles and were indeed intended as such. Yet the problem is a little more complicated than leaving it at that statement alone, for Wolf hardly ordered any of the miniatures in chronological composition sequence. Instead, and particularly for the Italian set the songs seems to be grouped in a thematic instance, focusing more on mood and type than on any sort of dramatic pattern. And over the years many people have decided to excise certain songs from the set for performance, or even reorder the entire thing. This can be criticized but shouldn’t be, as Wolf’s idea of these 40-odd songs per set being performed all at once is a little unrealistic, especially in his own day and age (he never heard the Italian set).
But the intention was definitely that they should be sung together, and so Bridge has graciously accepted the challenge to present both books in toto using a fine cast of singers, prominently for most folks the presence of Wolfgang Holzmair, with the addition of a light and airy soprano voice to complement his efforts, Birgid Steinberger. There are no indications as to specific voice type, though it must be admitted that the texts themselves (back to the 14th century for the Spanish book and mainly collected from an 1860 portfolio of Italian verse for the other set) lend themselves well to this dialog between the sexes. Both performers yield themselves fully to the Wolfian spirit that created these magnificent works, able to project the most intimate sentiments while not shying away from the bolder proclamations found in both the secular and sacred texts. This recording, made in Vienna back in 2010 (why was it delayed I wonder?) is beautifully set down in splendid sonics, and is an important addition to the Wolf canon.
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