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S & H Concert Review

Wolf, ‘Spanisches Liederbuch’ – Christine Schäfer, Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider – Wolf Centenary Concert, Wigmore Hall 22nd February 2003 (ME)


Hugo Wolf’s short life ended on 22nd February 1903 and this high point of the Wigmore’s Centenary series commemorated him with singing and playing of the most sublime quality. The ‘Spanisches Liederbuch’ is short on ‘lollipops’ and within its 44 songs there are very few dealing with unalloyed happiness, making for a long but completely engrossing evening.

The ten ‘Geistliche Lieder’ set the tone of intense seriousness which prevails in this work, and were dominated by Goerne’s towering performances of ‘Herr, was trägt der Boden hier’ and ‘Nun wandre, Maria’. Goerne began the evening with a wonderfully concentrated ‘Nun bin ich dein’, where the forte at ‘Die Wunden Heil gewonnen’ was achieved with effortless mastery and the closing plea ‘O führe mich zum Hafen!’ was uttered with the most unexaggerated eagerness – what a great deal this baritone has learned, in so short a time. Schäfer’s ‘Die ihr schwebet’ was almost hectic in its fervid evocation of the perils which might beset the infant Jesus, her dramatic evocation of the threatening storms beautifully contrasted with the gentleness of the final lines, with a truly involving final ‘Es schlummert mein Kind’.

‘Herr, was trägt der Boden hier’ and ‘Nun wandre, Maria’ are probably the best known of these songs, and I have never heard either of them more finely sung, with the former given as a perfect conversation between Christ and his follower, almost in the manner of one of George Herbert’s poems on the same subject and offered without any undue overworking of ‘bitterlich’ or ‘Blumen Zier’, yet still capable of moving us to tears – perhaps because of its utter simplicity and truthfulness. As for the latter song, it was perfection – there cannot be an active singer around now, or during the last 30 years, or on record, whom I have not heard perform this miraculous piece, and Goerne and Schneider outshone them all. As Richard Stokes remarked in his moving and entertaining pre-concert talk, many performers choose to ignore Wolf’s ‘Langsam’ as an instruction, and take the song as though Mary were positively bounding along, highly unlikely in her condition at the time: on this occasion, the music was played with the most wonderful combination of serenity and anxiety, the piano providing an almost Schubertian walking rhythm as well as the perfect counterpoint to Joseph’s anxious chiding, and Goerne sang it with warmly masculine yet delicate sensitivity, most marvellously shown at the heartrending little pause after ‘Bethlehem’ and the very moving rise in the tone at the final ‘Nah ist der Ort’.

The ‘Weltliche Lieder’ are almost as sombre in their attitudes to relationships, although here Wolf uses the full panoply of Spanish colour in his accompaniments, taken full advantage of by Schneider who seems to relish every challenge and to play ever more as though he has just dreamed it all up that day – this is not to suggest the slightest sloppiness or cavalier attitude; quite the reverse in fact, but his ease of execution is really something to see and hear. ‘Klinge, klinge, mein Pandero’ is one of those songs which combine a tambourine-like sound in the accompaniment with a narrative of heartbreak, and Schneider’s playing of the rippling piano part was the perfect echo for Schäfer’s bleached tone. She did not entirely succeed in banishing the arch from ‘In dem Schatten meiner Locken’, but her interpretation was not as cloying as that of many other singers, and ‘Mögen alle bösen Zungen’ managed to be charming rather than annoying as it sometimes is.

Schäfer’s art was most finely revealed in ‘Liebe mir im Busen’ and ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’ – in the former, the warmth of her tone seemed to increase with each line, culminating in a gripping ‘Eh das Herz verbrannt!’ and in the latter, she made a very well known song sound fresh and new with a perfect diminuendo at the close. There are times when she overdoes the white tone, and she sometimes approaches the notes from below, but ‘Geh, Geliebter, geh jetzt!’ was beautifully phrased and highly individual.

‘Komm, o Tod, von Nacht umgeben’ and ‘Dereinst, dereinst, Gedanke mein’ are two of Wolf’s greatest songs, compressing worlds of suffering and sorrow within each masterpiece, and they were here given performances of suitable grandeur, tenderness and intensity, with ‘Komm, o Tod’ revealing Goerne’s superb control of the musical line, faultless phrasing and care for words – it’s hard for any singer to banish Fischer-Dieskau entirely from our minds in this song, but Goerne succeeded, even with such phrases as ‘Also seist du mir gegeben’. ‘Dereinst, dereinst’ was the still centre at the heart of this recital in a performance which achieved the perfect unison of pianist, singer and audience, all of us joined in loving homage to this great composer’s art – this deeply moving song, with its sad, slow progress through a dark night of the soul was sung and played with such utter mastery, such strength in reserve and such sheer grandeur that I doubt if any of us will forget it for a very long time.

Those of us who love Wolf are in song Heaven at the moment, and after this evening’s hardly broken intensity we can look forward to Monday night’s performance, when Goerne and Schneider will present some of Wolf’s most universally loved settings of Goethe and Morike.

Melanie Eskenazi



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