Christiane Oelze (soprano), Olaf Bär (baritone) & Helmut Deutsch (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 6 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Occasionally comes a concert to remind why one still goes to concerts. This was just such an occasion. Three great artists and a full, attentive and appreciative house. The nature of the exchange between artists and an audience is not easily defined; but, at its best, making and receiving music is a profoundly humanising shared activity. Like some forms of religious communion it serves to remind us that ultimately we are all one; on this occasion that sense of communion between music, performers and audience was palpably present.
Olaf Bär was a particularly welcome returnee, his visits to London having been all-too-infrequent of late. (After recording most of the significant Schubert and Wolf repertoire relatively early in his career, EMI seems to have ignored him.) For good measure we also had the delicious Christiane Oelze and that prince of piano-accompanists, Helmut Deutsch. Now that Gerald Moore and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf are no longer with us, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is retired, it’s difficult to imagine a finer combination for Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Songbook”.
Few of the 46 songs of the “Italian Songbook” run to more than two pages of music, yet despite their extreme brevity these love-poems encompass the whole world of relationships between the sexes in much the same way that a novella frequently tells us more in its short span than does a more weighty tome. What made this evening so special was immediately clear from the tangible chemistry between the two singers – this was very definitely a double-act (complemented by some truly fabulous pianism from Deutsch) and even when not actually singing, one singer would invariably be visibly engaged and responding to the other.
Having grown up with the Schwarzkopf/Fischer-Dieskau recording where the songs are sung roughly in order of their composition, it has to be said that Bär and Oelze’s ordering of the songs – with male and female alternating from song to song (irrespective of the settings’ chronology) – provided greater variety and created a carefully worked out sequence which was far more satisfactory.
For instance, a song of rage sung by Oelze, such as ‘May a chasm engulf my lover’s cottage’, was now succeeded by the male voice’s ‘Let us now make peace’, which made perfect sense. What an irony that in the “Italian Songbook”, Wolf, who so desperately wanted to succeed as an opera composer, should almost inadvertently have created what is effectively a duet-opera with two protagonists interacting operatically from song to song! Oelze’s operatic experience stood her in good stead in creating instant cameos – flirtatious in ‘You think you can catch me on a thread’, splendidly spiteful in ‘Who called you then? Who sent for you’ and – aided by Deutsch’s piano – absolutely hilarious in ‘How long I have yearned to have a musician as a lover’, which drew a heartfelt round of spontaneous applause.
By contrast, the male voice carries more of the main emotional weight in songs such as “Blessed be your mother in heaven”; it contains the agonisingly sad lines: ‘I feel the flames rise up that destroy my peace, madness takes hold of me’ (Wolf was soon to be committed to an asylum, a victim of tertiary syphilis). Bär’s trump cards were quality of his voice – dark brown chocolate – and his glorious legato singing, a world away from Heldentenor bark. Especially memorable in this respect were his suppressed joy in ‘When you glance at me fleetingly and laugh’ and the erotic charge of ‘And if you would see your lover die’.
It has been pointed out that whereas such great song-writers as Schubert and Schumann were musicians with a feeling for poetry, Wolf was a poet who thought in terms of music. Native German-speakers singing Wolf are at a linguistic advantage in much the same way that Italians are in, say, the recitatives of Mozart’s Italian-libretto operas. Bär and Oelze were able to instantly convey the essential emotion of each song, painting as it were with a few verbal brushstrokes, but also in clearly distinguishing the frequent irony of Heyse’s poetry from its more serious moments.
A life-enhancing evening, then, and all the more impressive that this highly chromatic, highly demanding music was sung from memory.