Wolf Lieder at Wigmore Hall: A Mixed Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wolf: Anglelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano), Dietrich Henschel (baritone), Julius Drake (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.1.2013 (MB)

Königlich Gebet
Der Sänger
Auf einer Wanderung
Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens
Das verlassene Mägdlein
Lebe wohl
Im Frühling
Grenzen der Menschheit
Spottlied aus Wilhelm Meister
Mignon I-III
Kennst du das Land

Twelfth Night at the Wigmore Hall brought Hugo Wolf from Angelika Kirchschlager, Dietrich Henschel, and Julius Drake. Whilst there was much to enjoy, most of that came courtesy of Kirchschlager, Drake proving variable in his command of Wolf’s admittedly difficult piano writing, Henschel having one wish for variability in order to leaven an often unpleasant tone.

Mörike settings opened the programme. In Auf eine Wanderung, Kirchschlager and Drake offered heightened, Schubertian expectancy, presenting the song as a child of Die Post. Ghosts of Tristan were to be heard during the interlude between the two stanzas, harmony quite properly the agent of transformation. Kirchschlager’s communicative artistry told, both through the excellence of her diction and, just as important, her use of the words. (It is no good simply being heard, if one does not know either what to do with the words or what their implications might be, as many of us found to our cost with Bryn Terfel’s deeply disappointing recent Wotan at Covent Garden.) In Lebe wohl, harmony and vocal line sounded anticipatory of Strauss, whereas Mahler and the Second Viennese School hovered on the horizon in Das verlassene Mägdlein. If only Drake had been more in command of the piano part here and elsewhere, this could have been very special indeed; as it was, it seemed, rightly or wrongly, as if more practice would have been in order. Nevertheless, Kirchschlager offered a soaring account of Im Frühling, albeit an account without the lack of verbal attention that often accompanies that adjective. Moreover, she showed how she could scale her tone down to the greatest intimacy. Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchen took us both back and forward to youthful excitement. The delirious nature of Wolf’s post-Wagnerian writing was compromised a little by Drake’s less than complete technical control; nevertheless, the essential mood of the song still registered.

Goethe settings made up the rest of the programme. Drake proved a little too orchestral in Königlich Gebet, which sounded oddly akin to an orchestral reduction. However, he proved admirably detailed in his response to Der Sänger. Henschel’s dryness became increasingly difficult to bear, though, especially when, as in Grenzen der Menschheit, it was compounded by seeming inability to maintain a vocal line, let alone to shape it. The song, alas, might have been better off entitled Grenzen der Sänger; indeed, Sprechstimme would have come as a relief. In Prometheus, the piano was furious, Lisztian in spirit, yet often surprisingly inexact. The voice had not improved; if anything, it had deteriorated, hectoring beyond anything even Fischer-Dieskau’s wildest detractors might ever have alleged.

Henschel returned after the interval to introduce a second half made up of songs from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. The second Harfenspieler suffered from Drake’s inability to make Wolf’s syncopations sound as such, rather than as simply odd metrical uncertainty, though matters improved as the song progressed. Henschel offered more of the same, so it was a great relief when Kirchschlager returned for Philine, coquettish, seemingly anticipatory of Schoenberg’s cabaret songs. Henschel’s Spottlied presented a voice that had seemingly disintegrated; there was little to hear beyond barking. Despite occasional intonational issues, the return of Kirchschlager for the Mignon songs was again most welcome, the first in particular a hochdramatisch reading, the third suffused with sadness, its onward tread maintained as if to prevent any slide into the merely lachrymose. Kennst du das Land, the fourth of the set, was almost, yet rightly, not quite, operatic; once again, Strauss beckoned. The encore, Schubert’s duet version of Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt seemed, to me at least, to cross the operatic line, but with Henschel in attendance, that hardly mattered.

Mark Berry