Composed in spasmodic bursts between 1890-96, as fatal illness took hold, the 46 numbers of the Italian Songbook comprise Hugo Wolf's last major song project, and, to many admirers, his most nearly perfect.
Though the Wagnerian expansiveness of some of his earlier songs is precluded by the tight verse forms of Paul Heyse's German translations from Italian lyric verse, and by the exclusive concern of the texts with the joys and frustrations of young love, there is a compensating concentration on detail - on the way a single vocal inflection, chord change or postludial piano comment can convey the most intense feeling.
The songs are usually divided between soprano and baritone, and for this performance, in its current Festival of Song, the Wigmore Hall netted Olaf Bar, long established as one of the noblest baritones in the lieder field, and the distinguished soprano Christiane Oelze, with the seasoned Helmut Deutsch as accompanist. But alas for expectations! Even in Wolf's pellucid opening song hymning the pleasures to be found in small things, it was evident that Oelze's voice had acquired a certain vinegary edge. And while she shaped quieter numbers such as No 19 ("For a long time we had both kept silent") pleasingly enough, she tended to lose focus in the louder, more flouncing items, including the final song, No 46, in which she mocks her man with a tally of all her lovers.
But the real sadness was Bar. Where he was able to sing full out, as in song No 30 ("Let her go, if she acts so proud"), something of the old eloquence was still to be heard. But at anything less than forte, the voice sounded virtually unsupported, foggy in tone, and often alarmingly variable in pitch. The morbidly beautiful song No 33 ("If I should die, then shroud my limbs in flowers") was agonising for quite the wrong reasons.
Deutsch's tendency to overcompensate for shortcomings with pianistic exaggerations hardly helped. Still, it was good to be reminded of this now none-too-frequently heard music, and of the unique microcosm Wolf summoned up.Reuse content