Wolf
Italienisches Liederbuch [performed in a sequence devised by Steuart Bedford]
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano) & John Shirley-Quirk (bass-baritone) with Steuart Bedford (piano)

Recorded 19 June 1977 at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, England, during the Aldeburgh Festival
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5076
Duration: 80 minutes
Reviewed: August 2012
The pairing of Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk in this music seems surprising at this distance in time, with their careers long finished and reputations solidified.
John Shirley-Quirk is predominantly associated with oratorio and contemporary music. In the operatic field he was a long-time member of the English Opera Group and created important roles in Benjamin Britten’s later stage-works, as well as being cast by the composer in recordings of his music. He has an extensive discography but Lieder is hardly represented in it.
Janet Baker has a greater connection with Austro-German Songs, having recorded Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler, but this 1977 recital must have been something of an exploration for her. In fact her partner had more of a Wolfian background than one had realised. In a 1972 interview with Alan Blyth in Gramophone magazine, Shirley-Quirk revealed that he had sung a great deal of Wolf early in his career, then decided that he didn't understand it properly and put it aside. Earlier that year he had begun to return to the composer.
I am not convinced though of the total suitability of either of the two singers. Estimable they certainly are and considerable the musicality which they applied to a work outside their normal repertoire, for there is heaviness in both voice and style which slightly compromises the performance, despite many admirable features.
Far be it from me to deplore a fine legato, which is a feature of the vocal gifts possessed by both these singers, but Shirley-Quirk in particular, well-known for the clarity of his enunciation of text, bathes the words in a slow-moving kind of glue which is in many cases unsuitable for the conversational utterances of the lover whom he is portraying. Shirley-Quirk is at his best in devotional songs. Elsewhere he suffers by comparison with other performers, especially native German speakers, who deliver the text in a light, buoyant fashion.
The only mezzo-soprano of stature to have recorded the female is Christa Ludwig (with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). These songs have tended to be sung by sopranos, and light ones at that: Erna Berger, Elly Ameling and Mojca Erdmann are among the most acclaimed. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is a special case, because, though a lyric soprano, she adds a rich coating of sophistication to her interpretation. This has provoked disapproval in a debate which continues fifty years after she recorded the work.
Baker was a profoundly thoughtful but unaffected interpreter of Art Song and one can imagine her excelling in the other collections of Wolf. However, the settings that make up Italienisches Liederbuch (Italian Songbook) are not the diverse lyrics of Mörike, nor do they aspire to the sublime output of Goethe: the texts are translations of rispetti, popular, brief epigrammatic poems addressed to fellow lovers. Paul Heyse’s translations often refine the poetic diction of the original Italian but the charm of the imagery is retained, even where it is simplified, even platitudinous. Wolf enhances the poet’s portrayal of many aspects of the male and female psyche through the subtlety of his music.
All performers of this collection have to face the question of the songs’ order. By tradition singers begin with ‘Auch kleine Dinge’, almost an apologia for the brevity of the songs to follow, and end with the raucous ‘Ich hab’ in Penna’ (song 46). There can be no definitive answer to the question of how to arrange the other settings. The most favoured procedure is to alternate the voices as far as possible. Steuart Bedford’s ordering goes further than pure convenience. His creates dialogues between the male and female lovers, most notably when they come into opposition.
There is a noticeable difference between ‘his and hers’. The men include some pitiful creatures but several of the male songs are tributes to the female of the species, clothed in ingratiating music. One is inclined to see the men as the underdogs in these relationships: they are frequently given a hard time and come repeatedly under the lash of criticism but remain consistently infatuated. Shirley-Quirk’s presentation of them is consistently appealing, if not, as already suggested, entirely idiomatic. From the very first male song he produces a trademark liquid piano, particularly when responding to the expression-mark zart in the score, and we hear his considered, fastidious style at its best, with detailed dynamic changes and tiny slowing to suggest rapture but without the slightest affectation. In ‘Selig ihr Blinden’ Shirley-Quirk has to combine artistry with power of expression. He does not stint on the long crescendo leading to the climax and here he produces his trump card: the rigorous policy of covering notes above middle C which gives such a sense of safety, where others, Fischer-Dieskau included, bluster and go through their tone. Perhaps the most touching male song is Sterb’ ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder’: the man feels this is the zenith of their relationship, which he wants preserved in death. How skilfully does Wolf create an atmosphere of tranquillity and timelessness with his syncopations on never-changing A flat octaves in the left hand, surmounted by occasional sweet melodic fragments in the right.
The females are not without romantic fulfilment. The woman in ‘Wenn du mich mit den Augen streifst’ is totally in love with her partner, to the verge of physical pain. In ‘Wenn du mein Liebster steigst zum Himmel auf’ she is so confident of the perfection of their union that she can feel sure of its receiving divine approval. Love can bring torment, the girl in bed weeping uncontrollably, cut off from her beloved. Perhaps Baker gives us too much childish boo-hooing here. However, most of the female songs revolve around a rocky relationship, but one in which she wears the trousers.
The juxtaposition of the man’s ‘Lass sie nur geh’n’ and the woman’s ‘Verschling’ der Abgrund’ finds them both vehemently condemning their partner for unfaithfulness. The man gets first shot: his partner has many lovers, akin to the manifold tributaries of the Arno River which desert it in summer. Bedford notes the upward-rushing demisemiquavers with which his accompaniment begins and makes the figure a leitmotif for the man’s indignation amidst the sforzandi and jagged dotted rhythms which dominate the piano part until the final bars. Shirley-Quirk responds with restrained artistry rather than shouting, stressing the sibilants in “so die Stolzespielt” and adding a note of ironic colour when describing how she sees herself as God’s gift to man. The woman is not to be intimidated: she goes straight for the jugular. No classical conceits for her, more the biblical language of fire and brimstone: she calls down punishment on the traitor in a violent anathema comparable to Isolde’s curse in Act One of Tristan und Isolde. Baker spares nothing of tone or emotion in her fearsome account, delivered at score pitch stretching up to a top A.
These songs are miniature masterpieces, sometimes less than twenty bars in length, of extremely high standards of invention, each of which inhabits its own individual soundworld. Not all the songs match the quality of the best. Despite some reservations I find that these two distinguished singers rarely fail to shed light on their share of the songs; they are in any case excellent in the comic ones. Steuart Bedford’s playing is forthright, with a clear sense of direction. Sometimes he can be felt supporting the poet’s words, sometimes contradicting them.
The recording is vivid, with the sense of an audience being present but not disturbing the proceedings. Sung texts and translations are not included in the booklet but can be downloaded. We should be grateful to ICA Classics for making this performance available.

 

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