WOLF: Prometheus — Orchesterlieder

He scored only twenty-four of his songs for voice and orchestra,
including pieces from three collections, his Mˆrike-Lieder (13
Lieder), the Spanisches Liederbuch (4 Lieder), and the
Goethe-Lieder (7 Lieder). Wolf’s inspiration for scoring these
songs seems to be connected to the composer’s pursuit of opera as a
means of expression. While that motivation seems to have culminated in the
opera Der Corregidor, the orchestral Lieder he left should not be
regarded as mere exercises in orchestration, but are remarkable for the
details he elicited when he took the piano accompaniments into the orchestral
score. This recording contains all of Wolf’s efforts in this genre,
with the pieces divided between two fine singers, the soprano Juliane Banse
and the baritone Dietrich Henschel, who offer some fine interpretations of
the music. Both singers are well-suited to this repertoire; just as their
recordings of Lieder with piano accompaniment are effective, they work well
in the larger canvas of the orchestral settings.

Those familiar with the piano versions of these songs know the music, but
these pieces are significant for the distinctive orchestrations that Wolf
contributed to enhance the meaning and suggest some aspects of
interpretations. When compared with the orchestral versions, the dynamic
markings found in the Lieder with piano accompaniment seem more relative than
the volume implicit in the scoring of “Prometheus,” for example.
In that piece the volume and intensity of the orchestra not only underscores
the vocal line, but enhances its focus. Wolf is not merely forceful, but
sensitive to the timbres he can elicit from the full orchestra. Dietrich
Henschel delivers a convincing performance of this particular piece, which
relies, as times, on sonorities reminiscent of Wagner’s Der fliegende
Holl‰nder. In this venue, the song, which is used as the title of this
recording, stands well alongside the version with piano accompaniment as a
separate and yet powerful conception of the music.

In contrast the heaven-storming sounds of “Prometheus,” Wolf
demonstrates a sense of delicacy with “Mignon” (the famous text
“Kennst du das Land” that others, including Schubert and Schumann
had already set) with a scoring that contains some carefully place woodwinds
and horns to intersect the strings that carry the piece. This recording of
“Mignon” benefits from the careful phrasing and sense of text
that Juliane Banse brings to the music. Kent Nagano is likewise sensitive to
the orchestral palette that demands a deft hand. The sometimes darker colors
Wolf used in the latter part of “Mignon” contribute to the
resolution of song in the final lines that are scored more brightly in which
the singer points the way to another world.

The colorful orchestration of “Der Rattenf‰nger” suggests some
techniques that Richard Strauss used in a contemporary tone poem, like
Till Eulenspiegel, and suggest further the deft scoring that Wolf
contributed to these versions of his songs. Not only are these settings of
the Goethe-Lieder of interest, but a piece like “In dem Schatten meiner
Lˆcken” from the Spanisches Liederbuch becomes, perhaps, a bit more
dramatic in the orchestral version as the voice interacts with the orchestral
in a structure that is comprised of a melodic line linked to its
accompaniment. The scoring in these and other pieces is, perhaps, denser than
the textures associated with the orchestral songs of Gustav Mahler or Richard
Strauss. In the fuller orchestrations, though, Wolf not only looks backward
on some of the sonorities associated with German opera, but he also is able
to extract from the larger forces some refinements that anticipate, in a way,
the approach Arnold Schoenberg would take in his cycle

With, for example, “Denk’ es, o Seele,” Wolf reinforces
in his scoring some of the colorful harmonies that can lost in the piano
accompaniment, depending on the emphasis of the performer. In this song
Henschel uses the spaces between the interjections of the orchestral to bring
out his vocal line in executing this piece. Similarly, Banse shapes the line
of “Gebet” as she plays off the orchestra. This resembles in some
ways the way that Wolf structured “Karwoche,” with timbres
reminiscent of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Yet “In der
Fr¸he,” Wolf tends to be more expressionist in his use of orchestral
colors, and Nagano brings out the careful scoring effectively.

All of the pieces on this recording are for solo voice except for the
Mˆrike setting (from the novel Maler Nolten) entitled “Der
Feuerreiter,” which Wolf scored for chorus and orchestra. An extended
piece, “Der Feuerreitter” sounds more like an excerpt from a
cantata than an orchestral song, and it has found its way into various
concert programs. In fact, a performance of this very piece is part of a
recently released retrospective CD of Daniel Barenboim’s tenure as
conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who included it in the
repertoire he led with that organization. A larger piece because of its use
of chorus, “Der Feuerreiter” is also impressive, with
Wolf’s use of orchestra underscoring the drama implicit in his setting
of the text.

In fact the commentator Habbakuk Traber refers to “Der
Feuerreiter” as one of the two great ballads in this collection, with
the other being the song “Prometheus.” In making such an
assessment, Traber aptly describes these pieces and the other Orchesterlieder
as being “between epic and drama,” a perspective that may have
been in mind when Wolf decided to score these pieces from his other Lieder.
The term “epic” seems best understood qualitatively, rather than
the formal sense, with the love songs Wolf chose to orchestrate being,
perhaps, have a slightly stronger emotional pitch than some of his other
settings. Notwithstanding such a distinction, in creating these settings,
Wolf certainly made the pieces that he had originally composed with piano
accompaniment into impressive orchestral compositions.

The performers, Banse, Henschel, and Nagano each demonstrate their
commitment to this demanding repertoire, which presents on a single CD all of
Wolf’s orchestral Lieder. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
(founded under this name in 1993) brings a burnished quality to the
performances, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin is adept rendering “Der
Feuerreiter.” This is a fine recording that adds to the discography of
Romantic Orchesterlieder, a genre that certainly deserves attention for its
expansion of the German song beyond the traditional bounds of the solo
recital with piano accompaniment. Those who know Wolf’s Lieder will
want to explore the fine performances.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image_description=Hugo Wolf: Prometheus — Orchesterlieder
product_title=Hugo Wolf: Prometheus — Orchesterlieder
product_by=Juliane Banse, soprano;Dietrich Henschel, baritone; Duetsches Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin, Kent Nagano, director.
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMC901837 [CD]