Wednesday 13 May 2020

A disc full of discoveries: the first group of Goethe settings from Stone Records' complete Hugo Wolf songs

Hugo Wolf Goethe Lieder, part 1; Louise Alder, Fflur Wyn, Katarina Karneus, Rowan Hellier, Adrian Thompson, Roderick Williams, Neal Davies, Sholto Kynoch; STONE RECORDS
Hugo Wolf Goethe Lieder, part 1; Louise Alder, Fflur Wyn, Katarina Karneus, Rowan Hellier, Adrian Thompson, Roderick Williams, Neal Davies, Sholto Kynoch; STONE RECORDS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 May 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The complete Hugo Wolf songs from the Oxford Lieder Festival continues with Wolf's Goethe settings including the powerful sequence from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre

Stone Records series Hugo Wolf: the complete songs, recorded live at the Oxford Lieder Festival, has reached volume 10, Goethe Lieder: part one, with Lousie Alder, Fflur Wyn, Katarina Karneus, Rowan Hellier, Adrian Thompson, Roderick Williams and Neal Davies performing 19 of Hugo Wolf's settings of Goethe with Sholto Kynoch (piano).

Hugo Wolf's Gedichte von J.W. v. Goethe dates from 1888 and 1889; Wolf seems to have taken a calendar year to set this cycle of 51 songs on Goethe's texts, during a period when he produced 174 songs in two and half years. On this first disc of the Goethe settings, lyrics from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Goethe's second novel, published in 1795-96) feature quite heavily, lyrics which had a long tradition of being set by composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and more. If these songs are, perhaps, less well known than some earlier settings its is partly because Wolf is less interested in them as lyrics per se; many are quite free in their settings and Wolf is interested in digging into the complex emotional atmosphere behind the lyrics. After all the story is a strange one, complete with a heroine, Mignon, born of incest.

We start with the Harper, Mignon's father, and the three Harfenspieler sung by Neal Davies. These are masterpieces of introspection and melancholy, even though Wolf's accompaniment sometimes echoes the harper's harp. Davies and Kynoch bring this mood out, and whilst Davies sings with a beautifully crafted vocal line and clear words, he also gives us a clear sense that this bloke is at the end of his tether. Davies continues with Spottlied, a lively and rather complex song with a distinctly sarcastic edge. This is one of a number of songs on the disc where we can hear Wolf (1860-1903) as a contemporary of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and even Kurt Weill (1900-1950).

Next come the three Mignon lieder sung by Katarina Karneus. Mignon is a complex character, and at no point could we ever think she was 13. Karneus wisely doesn't even try, and as Richard Stokes points out in his booklet notes, Goethe's poetry is highly sophisticated for a 13 year old girl. The three are haunting in their intensity, quite free form in their structure and full of lyric melancholy, beautifully captured by Karneus and Kynoch.

Philine is rather lighter, she is clearly a light-hearted soubrette and we think of Ambroise Thomas' depiction of her in is opera. Here, Louise Alder captures the perky complexity of the piece (this is another one of those which looks forward to the 20th century), and both Alder and Kynoch bring out the dance-element in the work.

We then return to Mignon for perhaps her most famous lyric, 'Kennst du das Land', again sung by Karneus. A haunting melody, beautifully phrased and a moving performance which is almost operatic in its scale (the song is nearly seven minutes long). The final one from Wilhelm Meister is Der Sänger, a lyric sung by the harper, here Neal Davies again. It is another rather free, large-scale piece, with Davies' highly characterful baritone over Kynoch's flowing piano creating a sense of drama.

From Mignon we move to the Pied Piper, with Der Rattenfänger, and setting a character rather more lascivious and swaggering that in Browning's poem; sung by Roderick Williams with a light tone to create a delightful character piece.  And we have more fun with Ritter Kurts Brautbart which tenor Adrian Thompson almost makes into an operatic scena (and Wolf does quote Karl Goldmark's opera Die Konigin von Saba). Guttman und Gutweib is Goethe's version of a Scots ballad, here sung by Rowan Hellier. Wolf creates a drama full of character, perhaps trying to hard with what is after all a ballad, but there is some fabulous witches' music in the piano.

Next comes a pair of songs from Goethe's play, Der Gross-Cophta. Both are characterful, almost comic, beautifully sung by Roderick Williams, and in both the music hints at strange doings and oddities. Frech und Froh are another pair of songs, which come from Goethe's singspiel Claudine von Villa Bella. Tenor Adrian Thompson makes the first, with its rather chattering vocal line, perky and characterful whilst the second is more dramatic  Beherzigung is a sermon based on I Corinthians 10, and Thompson gives it the requisite punchy drama, though this and the previous song seem to stretch Thompson's essentially character tenor somewhat.

Finally, a lighter item, Goethe's Epiphanias, his song of the three kings, involving a narrator (Fflur Wyn) and three kings (Rowan Hellier, Adrian Thompson, Roderick Williams) all having great fun with Wolf's lively version of Goethe's text. Wolf's version was originally written for performance by the children of his married mistress!

I have to admit that, until I picked up this disc, I was entirely unfamiliar with Wolf's Goethe settings and, as with much of the composer's output, the songs really do repay getting to know them. I was particularly taken with the Wilhelm Meister songs which work well as an extended group and, such is their drama, felt that a performance which interleaved elements of Goethe's novel to create a dramatic whole would be rather striking.

The performances here are all strong, each singer finding something of themselves in their songs and making even the lesser ones worth listening to. As ever, Sholto Kynoch accompanies with sympathy and brings out the delights and complexities of Wolf's piano parts. The live performances seem to have been captured well, with great immediacy.

Volume 11 of the series will feature Wolf's settings from Goethe's West-östlicher Divan.

Hugo Wolf - Harfenspieler I
Hugo Wolf - Harfenspieler II
Hugo Wolf - Harfenspieler III
Hugo Wolf - Spottlied
Hugo Wolf - Mignon I
Hugo Wolf - Mignon II
Hugo Wolf - Mignon III
Hugo Wolf - Philine
Hugo Wolf - Mignon
Hugo Wolf - Der Sänger
Hugo Wolf - Der Rattenfänger
Hugo Wolf - Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt
Hugo Wolf - Gutmann und Gutweib
Hugo Wolf - Cophtisches Lied I
Hugo Wolf - Cophtisches Lied II
Hugo Wolf - Frech und Froh I
Hugo Wolf - Frech und Froh II
Hugo Wolf - Beherzigung
Hugo Wolf - Epiphanias
Louise Alder (soprano)
Fllur Wyn (soprano)
Katarina Karneus (mezzo-soprano)
Rowan Hellier (mezzo-soprano)
Adrian Thompson (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Neal Davies (bass-baritone)
Sholto Kynoch (piano)
Recorded at the Oxford Lieder Festival, 12 & 14 October 2013 at Holywell Music Room, Oxford
STONE RECORDS 5060192780918 1CD [65.24]

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