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Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Eichendorff-Lieder: Der Musikant, Verschweigene Liebe, Das Standchen, Nachtzauber, Seemans Abschied
Mörike-Lieder: Der Genesene an die Hoffnung, Der Knabe und das Immlein, Begegnung, Verboirgenheit, Nimmersatte Liebe, Im Frühling, Auf ein Wanderung, Um Mitternacht, Auf ein altes Bild, Gebet, An den Schlaf, An die Geliebte, Lied eines Verliebten, Peregrina 1 and 2, Der Jager, Abschied.
Goethe-Lieder: Gutmann und Gutweib, Ganymede
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Anthony Pappano (piano)
rec. 26 -29 April 2005, LSO St Luke’s, London
EMI CLASSICS 3 42256 2 [71:37]
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What I love about Ian Bostridge’s voice is the way he can convey an ethereal sense of mystery. In Hugo Wolf songs, it’s a definite advantage, because Wolf’s songs, and the poets he sets, have an almost magical dimension "beyond" the printed page, so to speak. They come alive in performance.

Wolf wrote in a manic fervour of intensity, writing several songs a day in a manic phase of inspiration, delirious with excitement. Of course it wasn’t prosaic, or even healthy: Wolf ended his days caged in a primitive asylum for the insane. But those phases of intense creativity were what gave his life meaning, and what gave his music its incredible intensity and richness. Everything about Wolf was "hyper", from the way he worked to the way he spoke, and the way his eyes glowed. He inspired protective love from his friends, who realized the strange quality of his genius. His long-term lover killed herself a few years after his death. Had Wolf been clubbable, like, say, Brahms, he might have been lionized by society, but that wasn’t his way at all. His genius was enhanced by his need to be totally individual and indeed, revolutionary. He’s called the "Wagner of the Lied" for good reason. His intense, quirky music reflected in a strange way the highly coloured, dramatic world of fin-de-siècle Vienna.

Wolf was meticulous about his choice of text. Indeed, he quite sincerely described his Mörike songs as mere evocations of the poems. This music is so beautifully rococo, that it can tempt florid, "operatic" interpretations but that would misinterpret their essence, which is intelligent text painting. Not surprisingly, this is natural Bostridge territory.

Eichendorff was a Prussian civil servant whose poems seem conventional on the surface. Bostridge hints at quirkier undercurrents. Even Der Musikant, a straightforward (by Wolf standards) ballad about a wandering musician refers to the sad fact that minstrels don’t fit in with society.. Even more striking is the amazing Verschweigene Liebe (secret love). It’s a disturbingly mysterious song about unspoken love that secretly expresses itself, flowing over the landscape at dead of night, like clouds. Conceptually it’s so modern and abstract that wonders what motivated Eichendorff, a happy Catholic family man. But it’s much more than a love song : in the silence of night, "Gedanken sind frei". The way Bostridge floats the last line, using the cloud imagery, is exquisite. There’s similar haunting mystery in Nachtzauber (night magic). Moonlight transforms a familiar landscape. It’s not clear if the night blooming blossom is a flower or a dream. If Bostridge’s German is a little exotic at times in this song, it’s quite in keeping with its strangeness, and more than compensated by the way he shapes the lines with supple agility. This isn’t music to be taken literally, it doesn’t need four square singing.

As expected, the Mörike-Lieder take pride of place. Eduard Mörike was a visionary, fascinated by what in his day were "scientific" studies in the paranormal. He was was plagued by long illnesses, possibly of a psychosomatic nature, which he used creatively to write and paint instead of "work". Hence, the sensitivity of Bostridge’s approach to Der Genesene an die Hoffnung (the convalescent’s hymn to hope). Bostridge uses the plaintive edge in his voice effectively : it makes a listener think about Mörike and Wolf, both brilliant artists suffering the downside of being genuinely sensitive human beings. This sensibility makes Bostridge’s Gebet exceptional. It’s a tiny song, so subtle that its real impact can easily be missed. In two short strophes, the poet meekly accepts whatever God sends, but pointedly neither joy nor suffering, "for in between lies the happy medium". It’s profoundly ironic, but anyone knowing Wolf and Mörike will understand why it’s critical to get the understatement right.

Pappano is a very supportive player, who understands how voices work. Despite Wolf’s belief in the predominance of text, his piano writing is complex and needs real dexterity. At times, such as in Auf eine altes Bild, Bostridge’s refinement is a little precious, but Pappano’s warm, sensual style grounds the song firmly. Together they are a team, balancing each other very well indeed. Sensuality is an important part of the Wolf/Mörike ethos, too. Mörike’s sexually explicit drawings are fairly well known: to him sex was an essential part of life. Hence the uncompromising eroticism of songs like Der Knabe und das Immlein (the boy and the bee) and Begegnung (the encounter). The powerful, rolling piano line replicates the storm which had blown the night before: the voice makes it clear that another, more private storm had occurred indoors as well. Bostridge’s voice firms and fills surprisingly well with erotic charge. He’s even more passionate in Nimmersatte Liebe, injecting both ferocity and delicious abandon in the sado-masochistic text – then, tantalisingly, ending the song in a whisper. The two Peregrina songs both stem from Mörike’s personal experience. Bostridge knows the context and sings them with appropriate awareness.

The original Peregrina was an outsider, something both Wolf and Mörike understood only too well. Perhaps that sense of being outside the mainstream gave them both the taste for satire. There’s plenty of humour in Wolf, from the gentle irony of Lied eines Verliebten to the outright parody of Abschied where a pompous critic gets his comeuppance. It’s a little cruel, granted – but then Wolf scraped a living as a music critic himself! Bostridge ‘s voice shows the strength and precision he’s developed over the last few years – hear how he varies volume and tempi to draw character – at times cringingly oily and at others rasping. Pappano makes the off key waltz whiz with panache. He also does wonders with the ebullient accompaniment to the setting of Goethe’s Gutmann und Guttweib. Hear how he plays the chords that announce the burglars. Bostridge’s comic gift makes vivid the words the burglar speaks as he sees the schnapps in the cupboard.

One could wish for more, perhaps Storchebötschaft, which Bostridge does to perfection, his gangly frame and sense of the macabre making truly marvelous impact when he performs it live. Or perhaps some of the magical Mörike Orplid settings. Orplid was a fantasy world Mörike created, complete with its own legends, genealogies and mysteries. it. Bostridge’s greatest strength is his ability to breathe magic and otherworldliness into whatever he sings. No one, I think, could be better for bringing out the surreal beauty of that very unique imagination. Nonetheless, as it stands, this recording is an excellent and highly individual approach to Wolf by an interpreter who really understands Wolf’s special sensibility and breathes life into the music.

Anne Ozorio

Seen&Heard will be reviewing Bostridge and Pappano in these songs at the Wigmore Hall on 16th Sept 2006.


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