Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder: Anna Prohaska and Christian Gerhaher at Wigmore Hall

A decidedly superior Liederabend, in terms of verse, musical setting, and performance. Hugo Wolf remains a connoisseur’s composer: slightly perplexing, perhaps, but then there is no playing to the gallery, no folkish dalliance, nothing that might strain toward the evidently popular. This is song born above all in verse and perhaps, especially for a non-German audience, that will never vie with the more obvious, which is not to say lesser, charms of Schubert or even Schumann. Be that as it may, it is difficult not to imagine Wolf—and Eduard Mörike—gaining a few converts among audience members who may initially have been attracted by the starry pairing of Anna Prohaska and Christian Gerhaher. Many, the present writer included, will have been equally impressed by the performances of the sensitive, comprehending pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz.

There is all manner of ways to programme such a selection, most with something to recommend them. This was intelligently ordered to provide coherence and contrast without didacticism. Gerhaher’s opening Verborgenheit came recognisably from the Wolfram we know and love, albeit definitely song rather than opera, even in the more dramatic second stanza. Wolf’s Lisztian harmonies were relished by Bushakevitz, again setting up expectations and prospects for subsequent development. A breathless (in mood, not technique!) Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens introduced Prohaska in impetuous contrast, her subsequent Das verlassene Mägdlein offering piano (and pianist) the opportunity for something more Wagnerian, whilst the Lied eines Verliebten that followed gave Gerhaher a counterpart to that Liebesleid, in neo-Schubertian vein. Moving from a love-song to a wedding, Prohaska was able to ‘tell it as it is’ in a sardonic Bei einer Trauung: ‘Denn leider freilich, freilich, keine Lieb’ ist nicht dabei’. Whether there were a note of bitterness here remained fruitfully ambiguous.

Ambiguities arising from the text, be that verbal, musical, or both were frequent, whether in the complex, ambiguous peace with which Gerhaher and Bushakevitz left us at the close of Um Mitternacht, the day now ended, the springs murmuring on. We heard—and felt—eery darkness, progressing to relative light (Gerhaher, In der Frühe), which led in turn to a spring-like Er ist’s (Prohaska), full of life, even hope. Though commendably detailed, as Wolf performances must surely be, there was no missing the wood for the trees; this was a pictorialism of the spirit rather than mere tone-painting. Wolf—and his interpreters—could be ardent too: take Gerhaher’s ecstatic climax in Peregrina I, the invitation to ‘consume us both in fire’ and to partake of the ‘chalice of sin’ followed by a splendid pianistic afterglow. Haunted, rich in potential meaning, Gerhaher’s Auf ein altes Bild, which opened the second half, was nicely open to interpretation, as if ‘reading’ that old painting itself.

Shaping of individual songs, whether short or ballad-like (e.g. Prohaska’s Der Tambour and Die Geister am Mummelsee)was a particular strength; likewise their integration into a greater recital whole. Phrasing, such as that of Prohaska and Bushakevitz, in a beautiful Zitronenfalter im April, told without exaggeration. Variety within unity was certainly present between, but in many respects also within, songs. Bushakevitz knew where to lean into dissonances, for instance in the extraordinary, brief Seufzer (‘Sighs’). Harp-music, verbally explicit in An eine Äolsharfe, and implicit in Gesang Weylas, offered another set of strings to the pianist’s bow. A final trio that brought other-worldliness (a post-Mendelssohn Nixe Binsefuss, Prohaska), urgent vehemence and much else (Gerhaher), and windswept virtuosity (Lied vom Winde, Prohaska) was shaped at least as much by Bushakevitz as his partners: truly collaborative music-making.

Mark Berry

Anna Prohaska (soprano), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Ammiel Bushakevitz (piano).

Hugo Wolf: Mörike-Lieder (selection)

Verborgenheit; Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchen; Das verlassene Mägdlein; Lied eines Verliebten; Bei einer Trauung; Ein Stündlein wohl vor Tag; Zitronenfalter im April; In der Frühe; Er ist’s; An den Schlaf; Im Frühling; Auf einer Wanderung; Um Mitternacht; Peregrina I; An eine Aölsharfe; Peregrina II; Begegnung; Denk’ es, o Seele!; Auf ein altes Bild; Auf eine Christblume I; Schlafendes Jesuskind; Auf eine Christblume II; Karwoche; Seufzer; Wo find ich Trost?; An die Geliebte; Gesang Weylas; Der Tambour; Die Geister am Mummelsee; Der Jäger; Nixe Binsefuss; Der Feuerreiter; Lied vom Winde.

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 30th June 2022.

ABOVE: Anna Prohaska, Ammiel Bushakevitz, Christian Gerhaher