Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook
Robin Friedman | Washington, D.C. United States | 11/17/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Hugo Wolf (1860 --1903) ranks with Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms as a composer of art songs. But particularly in the United States, his work remains little known. Wolf's achievement, unlike his predecessors, is almost entirely in the realm of song. (He composed a string quartet and an opera but little else beyond the songs that is much remembered.) In addition, Wolf brought something new and creative to the art song. His songs are generally short and thorough-composed in form. Wolf pays close attention to his text and tries to make every note and every nuance tell. He sets texts line-by-line with great attention to detail. To simplify, I think he is in a tradition that begins with Gluck and runs through Berlioz and Wagner in an attempt to shape his music tightly around the written word. His songs do not have the spontaniety or lyric flow of Schubert's, but they speak in their own voice. They are intimate and moving creations.
Wolf worked in spurts, and most of his songs are gathered into several lengthy songbooks. Thus, he composed the first half of his Italian Songbook in 1891 and only returned to compose the second half in 1896. It is probably the greatest of Wolf's song collections.
Wolf set a series of anonymous Italian poems which had been translated into German in 1860 by a man named Paul Heyse. The verses consist mostly of short, simple poetry all of which deal with human love in its many aspects. There are 46 songs in the collection closely divided between songs for a man and songs for a woman. There is little, if anything, specifically Italian in the poems or in Wolf's settings. They have a quality which is both universal and personal.
The songs for male voice in the Italian Songbook tend to be intense songs of devotion extolling the beauty and character of the beloved. They are highly romantic and charged. But there are some lighter songs as well, such as no. 14 which is in the voice of a lecherous monk attempting to secure access to the home of an ill young girl in order to seduce her.
A minority of the songs for woman's voice also are in the language of passionate love. But the larger number of these songs deal with matters such as betrayal, rebuffs, anger, mockery, promiscuity, or coldness and inability to love. One of the best known songs in the collection is the last, no. 46, which is a short "catalogue song" similar to Leporello's in Don Giovanni in which the singer boasts her many conquests. Some of the songs are "paired" in that there are songs for one voice which seem to be answers to a song that was heard earlier in another voice. A bit of listening with the text will make this clear.
The songs are in a variety of styles but all feature a close, winding interplay between the piano and voice as they wrap around the text. Wolf's many preludes and postludes for the solo piano are integral parts of these songs.
There are not many available recordings of the entire Italian Songbook, but we are blessed with this reissue of a 1969 release with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano, and Gerald Moore, the incomparable pianist of lieder. This CD amply deserves its billing as one of the "Great Recordings of the Century." Fisher-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf are rare masters of this difficult music. Fisher-Dieskau sings with smooth passion while Schwarzkopf rasps, snarls, cries, and dramatizes the many different moods in the woman's songs in this collection.
This CD comes with texts and translations for the songs. It is essential to follow the text while listening to Wolf.
This recording will be most enjoyed by those listeners who have some exposure to songs, such as Schubert's, and want to explore further the development of this unique type of art music."
A perfect achievement
Ingrid Heyn | Melbourne, Australia | 06/28/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It would be remarkable if the two arguably finest exponents of Lieder did not make something extraordinarily magical of this group of songs, called the "Italienisches Liederbuch" (Italian Songbook). There can be few lovers of classical vocal singing who do not admire or love the singing and blessedly high intelligence of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), and they are quite simply matchless in this repertoire.
The Italienisches Liederbuch is Hugo Wolf's setting of poems by Paul Heyse. Heyse was born in Berlin, but his first success as a poet was a collection of translations of Spanish poems in partnership with Emanuel Geibel. That success prompted his Italian Songbook, poems from various regions of Italy, translated into German. The translations are delightful - mostly love songs, but some with a little sting in them.
In Hugo Wolf's setting of these German "Italian" songs, a profound and perfect matching of music to words is achieved. Who can fail to be moved by the infinitely tender "O wär dein Haus durchsichtig wie ein Glas" (O, if only your house were as transparent as glass"? Who does not smother a sudden grin or giggle at the little whining finale of "Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen"? The hesitant amateur playing of the violin sketched out so cruelly in the deliciously written piano part is a masterpiece of meaning. And what of the wickedly sexy "Ich hab' in Penna einen Liebsten"?
There are some very lovely recordings of the Italianisches Liederbuch. I have, I think, most of them... but it's this recording that I consider the most glowingly meaningful, the most superbly sung, the most sympathetically played. Fischer-Dieskau is indupitably a great artist, and one of the best Lieder singers in the world. Schwarzkopf remains utterly unsurpassed as a Lieder singer among the many sopranos of quality. And Gerald Moore is rightly considered the king of Lieder accompanists. His playing is a miracle.
All in all, this is the recording of the Italianisches Liederbuch that I consider the very best. If you already have a recording of these marvellous miniatures in song, please don't hesitate - this recording also deserves a place in your collection.
Wolf remains as rare a delight as ever
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 09/04/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I can only echo the two excellent reviews posted earlier. In the 1930s, when Walter Legge headed up a private issuance of Hugo Wolf's lieder on 78s, the composer was caviar to the general, and seventy years later he still is. Those of us who are devoted to Wolf's multi-facted, sophisticated, and intensely expressive output will always be a tiny sliver of the music-loving public. Wolf's idiom isn't easy to adjust to at first, and yet he has attracted supreme vocal artists to his cause. This new remastering of a famous EMI recording sounds quite good. I will repeat my brief review of an earlier issue.
Here are two great Wolf singers caught at their absolute best in terms of interpretation and vocal gleam. Every other set of the Italian Songbook has had to live up to this one--although I must say there have been quite a few good versions. Just a warning to beginners, however. Wolf wrote several dozen miniature songs for this cycle, unlike the full-length lieder he wrote elsewhere, and the format of one exauisite jewel after another can be fatiguing, even exasperating if you aren't in a mood to concentrate hard for an hour. This is one great recording that I rarely return to, half a dozen songs at a time.