Author: Neil Fisher
WOLF Italienisches Liederbuch (Damrau; Kaufmann; Deutsch)
In the depths of winter, who isn’t longing for a summer holiday, and – even better – a holiday romance? So the timing is right for this recording of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook, not a true song-cycle but a collection of vignettes, his story and her story, capturing the foibles of love, courtship, jealousy, pain and parting (the texts are translated into German from anonymous Italian poets). We don’t have two real characters here but we have three voices: a man’s, a woman’s and a piano. If he and she can’t seem to agree on much, usually the piano gets the last word.

Recorded live towards the end of their tour performing these 46 miniatures, Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau give the piece something of a glossy reboot, and it’s a useful one, for a serious, single-composer Liederabend is no longer an automatic box-office draw, even in Germany and Austria. Each is probably the foremost German singer of their voice type in the world today, and both have excelled in Italian repertoire, so who better to take Wolf’s journey south of the Alps?

The ‘Diana and Jonas show’ was, by all accounts, really something of a show. Supported by the pianist Helmut Deutsch, who reorganised the songs into a very loose emotional narrative, the two also play-acted for the audience. This survives on record only as the sound of occasional audience chortling, which is jarring when often what’s been sung is actually verging on the tragic or bitter. Such is the ambiguity of these fascinating songs, which play with the lyricism of Italian opera and balladry while at the same time disdaining it.

Of the two singers, the bright-voiced Damrau is the more nuanced and precise with text, even if Wolf mostly allocates his female singer the role of the coquette or minx. Still, she digs deep. ‘Ich bin verliebt, doch eben nicht in dich’ – ‘I’m in love, but not with you’ – is poignantly and cleverly delivered in ‘Du denkst mit einem Fädchen mich zu fangen’. And she finds a palpably erotic frisson behind ‘Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen’, a plea for a musician (any musician?) to come and woo her.

Kaufmann, husky and intense, has less in his Lieder toolkit but he is completely committed to the material. You may surrender to his breathy-verging-on-crooning pianissimo singing or detest it – it’s not deployed too often here to grate. In a central section where the themes grow more morbid, he really excels as the writing grows more Wagnerian: ‘Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen’ unfolds in an almost Tristan-esque haze, directly followed by the rich melancholy of ‘Sterb’ ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder’.

While Kaufmann and Damrau are clearly at ease with each other and the chemistry really works, there are no duets here. The expressive glue is in fact Deutsch, with his unsentimental probing of Wolf’s ruthlessly concise writing and often devastating delivery of those fascinating, heart-stopping cadences.

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