Financial Times, 19 February 2018
Richard Fairman
Wolf: Italienisches Liederbuch, London, 16. Februar 2018
Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann, Barbican, London — a fine performance of Hugo Wolf songs
The soprano and tenor gave a rewarding account of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch
A generation ago the exalted soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf often advertised her solo recitals with the rider “programme to be announced”. When the audience turned up, they would find the evening given over entirely to the songs of Hugo Wolf. She knew that if she had owned up earlier, the hall would have been half empty.

The situation has improved since then. For their joint European tour this month, the soprano Diana Damrau and tenor Jonas Kaufmann had no compunction in presenting complete, evening-long performances of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, his series of 46 settings of concentrated nuggets of Italian poetry, translated into German. It helps that Damrau and Kaufmann are stars of the opera stage, both at the peak of their pulling power, so tickets were at a premium.

To help sell Wolf to a reluctant public, Schwarzkopf, a tireless champion of his songs, used to indulge in nods and winks, which earned her the criticisms “arch” or “coy”. Damrau and Kaufmann went in for even more. Although the songs are all solos, relationships suggested by the poems were acted out, with results that were at best amusing in a camp sort of way, and at worst (in the more light-hearted songs, gathered together before the interval) positively irritating.

In every other aspect this was a fine performance. Damrau is not often seen as a song recitalist in the UK, but she has a pointed way of delivering the words, except for a few occasions when she sacrificed intelligibility for drama, and a wide range of emotional responses. The flirtatiousness of many of these songs was lightly captured and the evening’s accompanist, Helmut Deutsch, matched her in every detail.

Kaufmann is more broad-brush as a song recitalist, but he sings the words naturally while keeping an eye on the vocal line. The Mediterranean sultriness behind these Italian poems asks for a voice with romanticism built in, and Kaufmann’s dark, brooding tenor has that to spare. He was especially memorable in the slow, heartfelt songs that came after the interval. Schwarzkopf was right about one thing: Wolf was a great song composer and in the right hands a recital devoted to his music can be immensely rewarding.

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