> WOLF Morike Lieder Rodgers Genz CDA67311-2 [CH]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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WOLF Hugo (1860-1903)
Mörike Lieder
Joan Rodgers (soprano), Stephan Genz (baritone), Roger Vignoles (pianoforte)
Recorded 9.1999 and 10.2000 in the Clara-Wieck-Auditorium, Heidelberg-Sandhausen, Germany
HYPERION CDA67311/2 [2 CDs, 74.09 71.59]


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Seldom can a two-word title have encapsulated a wider-ranging content. The whole of romantic Germany is here, from landscape-painting to simple and not-so-simple love, from deep religious feeling to ancient folk-legends of elves and the like. Here is the whole of romantic Germany, it must be said, less the simple love of melody, for which we have to turn to Brahms. There is no denying that Wolf is "difficult", requiring repeated hearings in order to appreciate the subtlety of his word-painting both in the voice-part and the accompaniment; the more so if your knowledge of German is limited. At the end this music can lodge itself in the memory, it is as great as its admirers have always claimed it to be, but you have to work to realise this.

The battle-lines were drawn back in the 1930s, by which time Ernest Newmanís classic 1907 study had obtained cult status. Newman himself declared in 1918 "I venture to think that the supreme master of form in music is not Beethoven or Wagner but Hugo Wolf" (The New Witness, 1918). This was the period of the Wolf-edition (an extensive subscribers-only series of discs on HMV featuring some of the greatest lieder singers of the day) and the rise of Walter Legge who later put all his weight behind the great LP editions with Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau and with Gerald Moore at the piano. The critic who didnít lap up his Wolf passed off as a simpleton indeed, one of those vulgar types who likes a bit of tune. And yet such a critic (was there one?) was only voicing what any babe or suckling could have told him, that if the music doesnít get across the first time or the second time or the third time and needs to be explained and studied then one essential ingredient of great music is surely lacking. When, at the end of a long Wolf recital at La Scala, Fischer-Dieskau announced his second Wolf encore, to be greeted by a cry from the loggione, "Letís have a bit of Verdi!", was that loggionista quite as incompetente as the other members of the public loudly said he was? Put your hand on your heart; after a dozen or so of these, wouldnít you love to hear a rich bass voice sinking into some heart-tugging melody like "Il lacerato spirito"?

Iím playing the devilís advocate, obviously. On the side of the angels we have Hyperion and all its works: magnificent presentation, perfect recording, two superb lieder singers in their early maturity and a pianist who, together with Graham Johnson and John Constable, has carried on the great line of British accompanists which goes back to Harold Craxton and continued through Gerald Moore (actually Canadian, of course).

First the presentation. A fine 1995 essay on Mörike by Richard Stokes, who also contributes translations of those texts of which a good translation was not available (the names of Eric Sams and Paul Hindemith stand out among the other translators), and an equally fine introduction to the songs by Roger Vignoles, who then provides a virtually bar-by-bar analysis of the individual songs. The style is so interchangeable with that of Graham Johnson in Hyperionís Schubert and Schumann (and much else) editions that one would be hard put to know which taught the other the importance of being earnest. As the results are excellent either way it hardly matters. Lucky Hyperion, that has both Tweedledum and Tweedledee at its beck and call!

The performances also follow an honourable tradition. We have been taught by Schwarzkopf and you-know-who to expect to hear these songs alternated between a light, high soprano and a resonant baritone, and so they are here. One day it might be interesting to alternate a mezzo-soprano and a tenor, or even record with four singers (it wouldnít increase the costs if the same four were simultaneously engaged to do other projects). But this is not intended as a criticism of what is here, only a suggestion for another time.

Joan Rodgers has a light, golden-toned voice which moves effortlessly in the upper register, where it acquires a vibrato that is for the moment rather attractive, though I hope it wonít get any wider. But she can also give her voice an attractively plangent timbre in its lower register. Listen to her in the two consecutive songs "Nixe Binsefuss", all high, dulcet tones, and "Gesang Weylas" with its more grave delivery. She copes finely with "Lied vom Winde", not by hectoring but by characterisation (and Vignoles helps by supplying masses of drama without degenerating into noise). She also characterises the comic songs well Ė hear her acting out the bleary-eyed morning- after in "Zur Warnung". But, to tell the truth, Iíve got copious notes in front of me made while listening, and theyíre all in the same positive vein so I think Iíve said enough to give a good idea.

Up to about two-thirds of the way through I was equally enthusiastic about Genz; the doubts I began to have are a matter of opinion. He has a lovely warm voice, absolutely even throughout its range, always true in intonation and communicative with the words. Itís this latter which gives rise to my doubts. Sometimes he separates the individual syllables of a word at the expense of a legato line. Take the second line of "Heimweh", which begins "Den ich weiter". Do you separate the syllables Ė "Den (stop) ich (stop) weiter" Ė or do you do something like this: "De-nee-shweiter"? Genz does the former. Ms. Rogers, in her songs, does the latter, which makes for a long legato line which the words do not break yet they are perfectly clear. This is one of the fundamentals of bel canto. Fischer-Dieskau knew all about bel canto and applied this legato when he wanted to, but on other occasions he chose to bring out the separate syllables, and Genz follows him in this. I always remember reading an interview with a young, upcoming Wagnerian baritone (I donít remember who, alas) in which he described how he had sought a consultation with the great Hans Hotter and had learnt from him the importance of true legato singing. There is always the danger that what isnít bel canto might end up as brutto canto Ė ugly singing. Genzís is not that and much of it is really lovely, but I hope he will do some work on this point.

I didnít get out the revered models because I basically found this set so fine as to suggest that comparisons would only be between different forms of excellence. Or not so different. As I have suggested, this set follows an honourable tradition. All those who care about the continuance of great lieder singing in our own times will hear it with rejoicing. I only wish, and only a little bit, that tradition might have been a mite less honoured.

Christopher Howell

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