Lieder and Opera meet in Hugo Wolf

The Wigmore Hall is hallowed ground for Lieder. Built in 1901 for Bechstein,
it is one of the world’s great recital halls, where many great singers
have appeared, even though it seats only 450. It’s the ambience that
draws them. They’d make more money in a big arena, but the Wigmore Hall
is a special experience. It’s small enough that interaction between
performers and audience is direct and intimate. This is the ethos that makes
Lieder so special. It’s intensely personal and nuanced : song through a
microscope to speak, but imbued with warmth and feeling.

Christian Gerhaher is a favourite with the Wigmore Hall audience. On this
evening Anna Netrebko and Dimitri Hvorotovsky were scheduled to sing elsewhere
in town, impacting on sales, so the Wigmore Hall wasn’t sold out as
usual. Gerhaher was singing Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches
, with his regular pianist, Gerold Huber and a young soprano,
Mojca Erdmann.

The 46 songs in the collection form a narrative, or even a cycle. Together,
they form a kaleidoscope of “Italian” life, romanticized through
Austro-German ears.. Hugo Wolf never fulfilled his dream of going to Italy, but
each song is full of vividly imagined incident. Dissolute monks seduce girls
whose mothers trust men in robes, a girl longs for “older men”
– aged 14!. Each song is like a moment in a larger story. Der schˆne
Toni’s eating himself to death because Tonina has dumped him, and a
man’s heart jumps clean out of his chest, running off to see his

Plenty of drama, then, in these songs, which Wolf plays up exuberantly with
witty piano commentary. They lend themselves to more dramatic treatment than do
more introspective Lieder. Indeed, much of the impact would be lost if they
were performed without a lively sense of fun.

Gerhaher was in good form. His voice is richly resonant, yet flexible enough
that he takes Wolf’s tricky rhythms with ease. Yet these songs are still
fundamentally, Lieder, where the action is inward. Gerhaher was most impressive
in songs where the singer has to hint at deeper mysteries. For example, Schon
streck’t ich aus im Bett, where the lover jumps out of bed to play his
lute. Wolf sets the last stanzas with a strange, meandering lilt which evokes
the strumming of the lute but also the text which pointedly mentions that the
singers has walked away from many girls, his music “wafted away in the
wind”. It’s no serenade.

Lieder is private, almost silent expression. There’s no orchestra, set
or plot to compete with, so the dynamics are different. Mojca Erdmann is young,
who’s still having to prove herself with her voice, so naturally
she’s more inclined to a declamatory approach that highlights the
technical side of her singing. Her flourishes in ‘Ich hab’ in
Penna’ would sound impressive in the theatre, but overwhelm the balance
in the song. True, the song’s about a girl bragging about her many
admirers, but it’s more effective with a touch of subtlety.

As the first song in the set goes, ‘Auch kleine Dinge’,
“even small things can delight”. “Think only of the
rose”, it continues in delicate tones, “it’s small but smells

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Hugo Wolf
product_title=Hugo Wolf : Italienisches Liederbuch — Wigmore Hall, London
product_by=Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Mojca Erdmann (soprano), Gerold Huber (piano)