Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook – Erdmann, Gerhaher & Huber

Italienisches Liederbuch

Mojca Erdmann (soprano), Christian Gerhaher (baritone) & Gerold Huber (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 19 May, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” consists of 46 songs, most of which are very short and, despite the pleading of the programme-note writer, none of the verses that Wolf set could be described as profound. Rather they detail the petty squabbling of a young couple, one or both of whom appear to be two-timing the other. As ever with Wolf the singer can be saying one thing and the pianist something totally different. Indeed the use of contrasting melodic and rhythmic lines is a stroke of genius. However the way in which the soprano seems to spend all of her time cursing her beloved and to lack any true depth of feeling is horrendously sexist and one does wonder whether – as with Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben” – if sopranos have a problem with this misogyny.

Mojca Erdmann. Photograph: Felix BroedeIn this performance there were three very different views of Wolf on offer. Christian Gerhaher has made a considerable reputation for himself as a Lieder singer. Gerold Huber is Gerhaher’s regular accompanist and he has produced some great piano-playing and been an equal partner. Mojca Erdmann is young and photogenic.

Erdmann’s voice is light and has a distinct slow vibrato. Rather worryingly in the second song the short climax found her looking and sounding taxed by the tessitura: the vibrato could become a wobble in the future. Nor was she particularly expressive. In the sixth song, dated ‘13 November 1890’ – none of the songs have conventional titles –, far more attack was needed and the playfulness of number ten was only hinted at. Unfortunately in Number 20, as the protagonist listens to her lover’s serenade, the line was flat, and there was simply no expressive ardour or licence. Number 23 needed far more dynamic variation and the hymn to the colour green (No.39) was bland. Only at the end of penultimate song did Erdmann come alive when the women imagines her lover being bitten by a snake bloated with poison. However. the start of the song, describing the chasm that she so ardently wishes him to fall into, came over as being more a ditch. By some distance this was the worst account of the soprano songs I have heard.

Christian Gerhaher. Photograph: Javier del RealGerhaher was rather better, but far from perfect. He has a wide range of tonal shades at his disposal and he used them to fine effect in several of the songs. His declamation in Numbers 4 and 13 was superb and there was a very fine and powerful climax to Number 9. And the lyricism of Number 35, where for the only time in the cycle, the first two stanzas are repeated, was rapt. What let Gerhaher down was his constant desire to sound every note as a totally separate entity. A seamless legato – such as presented by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerard Souzay or Thomas Allen – was sorely missed.

Huber, by contrast, was quite brilliant. The gorgeous rocking barcarole of Number 8 was perfectly captured, and rarely will you hear a wittier rendition of the stuttering violinist of Number 11. The control of rubato and the pedals was exceptional and totally natural. Huber often seemed to be in a different emotional world to the singers, being totally at ease with Wolf’s ambiguities and uncovering every impulsive and expressive nuance in a way totally beyond Erdmann and only partially realised by Gerhaher.

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