Presto Classical, 11th January 2019
by Katherine Cooper
Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch from Jonas Kaufmann, Diana Damrau and Helmut Deutsch
‘Even tiny things can delight us’, observes the heroine of Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch in her very first line – a sentiment which underpins this entire sequence of 46 songs setting Paul Heyse’s German translations of anonymous Italian love-poems which run the gamut from exalted quasi-religious meditation to pragmatic bathos, few of them clocking in at more than two minutes. This new live recording from a concert in Essen last year features two stars who are particularly well-suited to its blend of Italianate earthiness and Teutonic Romanticism: Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann, two German singers who’ve had as much success in bel canto (her) and verismo (him) as in their signature Strauss and Wagner roles.

Though I count myself lucky to have snagged a ticket for the London leg of the tour at the Barbican last February, I have to say that my overriding impression on listening to the album is that it works even better on CD (or download, if you prefer!): both Kaufmann and Damrau tend to focus on tragic roles on stage, and in concert there was a slightly awkward sense of them playing to the gallery in the comic songs as if to emphasise that a decade of Lucias, Siegmunds and Cavaradossis didn’t preclude being able to let their hair down when required. Refreshingly, only the best of that comes across on the recording: the wit and interplay between the two still registers loud and clear thanks to both singers’ crisp diction and canny phrasing, but the comedy only broadens into vocal slapstick when occasion really demands. (Try, for instance, the song about a lecherous monk talking his way into a love interest’s bedroom to ‘hear confession’, where Kaufmann’s assumption of a thin, peevish character-tenor sound for the girl’s protective father and a pseudo-bass gravitas worthy of John Tomlinson for the lusty cleric is both genuinely funny and technically quite astonishing).

The material itself dictates that Kaufmann spends the bulk of his time playing the straight man to Damrau’s perky super-soubrette, and he does it quite beautifully, making liberal use of his trademark weightless pianissimos and dark, covered sound, especially in the hymn-like numbers such as ‘Sterb ich, so hüllt in Blumen’ and ‘Ihr seid die Allerschönste’. On the few occasions when he’s called upon to provide quirky comedy, though, he does so with lightly-worn panache, for instance in ‘Ich ließ mir sagen’ in which reports of a spurned lover starving himself turn out to be greatly exaggerated (the man in question is in fact dealing with heartbreak by eating his way through the larder every evening!), or the ill-conceived and possibly tipsy serenade ‘Ein Ständchen euch zu bringen’ early on in the sequence. Damrau, meanwhile, is on fantastically sassy form, whether calling out the fairweather boyfriend who seeks out something spicier on high days and holidays in ‘Nein, junger Herr’ or summoning almost cabaret-style loucheness and a chanteuse-like chest-voice in ‘Du denkst mit einem Fädchen’ to inform a suitor that she is indeed smitten - but not with him.

But it’s no disrespect to either singer to observe that the lion’s share of the wit and charm on this recording comes from the third wheel in this dysfunctional love-story: that peerless song-pianist Helmut Deutsch, who frequently has the last word thanks to Wolf’s exquisite little postludes to many of these miniatures, and delivers it with an understated wryness that’s responsible for most of the smatterings of audience laughter on this live recording. Whether impersonating an aspiring violinist whose ardour outstrips his talent in the coda of ‘Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen’, dryly undercutting Damrau’s melodramatic paroxysms in ‘Was soll der zorn’, or bringing the house down with gleeful ‘You go, girl!’ approval at her brash recital of her catalogue of lovers in the very last song ’Ich hab’ in Penna’, he all but steals the show.

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