IN: Reviews

Wolf’s Poetry and Song


Kendra Colton (file photo)
Kendra Colton (file photo)

Hugo Wolf left a bounteous two sets of short songs based on Italian poetry without making clear how he intended them performed. This is strange, as his insistence on textural fidelity was legendary. In the single performance he arranged of the Italienisches Liederbuch Book One (1892), each of the 22 songs sounded after a reading of the set poem. But since the two collections (Book Two is from 1896) do not form a coherent narrative cycle, interpreters have subsequently done pretty much as they pleased. Taken from folk poetry and translated into higher German by Paul Heyse, the songs have been excerpted, reordered, performed with readings of the composer’s letters or readings of the poems in the local vernacular, or sung without any spoken component.

The combination of poetry reading and singing can play well when composer and poet know what they’re doing. My favorite of the genre, Brahms’s Die schöne Magelone, works because Tieck’s narrative of lady and knight combined prose advancing the tale with poems elaborating on it. Brahms set the poems and asked that the prose be read, making for a most engaging and inevitable hour-plus.

For the Sunday afternoon musicale at the Emmanuel Church auditorium, artistic director Ryan Turner invited rector Pamela L. Werntz to join him, before or after groups of two or three songs, in reading excerpts from an uncredited English translation (I believe by Eric Sams, 1994). In the church’s intimate wood-paneled space, this gave the performers some limited time to bond before moving offstage. Tenor William Hite, soprano Kendra Colton, and pianist Kayo Iwama essayed all 46 mostly very short songs in their published order, with an intermission between the two books.

Both sang resplendently and interacted well with pianist and patrons, but the sometimes coy readings of the vernacular translations hampered singer chemistry and repeatedly shattered the illusions created by the three fine musicians. The otherwise estimable Werntz frequently and misguidedly provoked outright laughter—generally not the humor the music evokes, which is that of the smile and the sigh. In the single exception, the pianist is asked, and Iwama complied with full force of personality, to imitate a smarmy amateur-violinist-playing-love-interest; this was really funny.

In the best performances of these songs, a coquettish and radiant soprano shares the stage with a loftily ardent tenor suitor. Colton’s voice slipped into a focused and gorgeous groove which served the notes well. But because she rarely occupied an active place alongside her suitor, she came across most often as something of a harridan and a comic. That worked some of the time, especially in her female version of a catalog aria, which closed the show with a bravura account of her romantic exploits:

I have a lover who lives in Penna;
another in the plain of Maremma;
one in the beautiful port of Ancona;
for the fourth I must travel to Viterbo.
Another lives yonder in Casentino;
the next with me in my home town;
and I have yet another in Maggione,
four in La Fratta … and ten in Castiglione!       [Eric Sams]

Even in the lighter accompaniments, Iwama’s strong personality made her a third actor, and she fully engaged with the demands of the wetter, harmonically more interesting parts in the second book, reaching orchestral force. It’s worth adding that the voicing of Emmanuel’s Steinway B sounds a little dull; this is easily remedied.

William Hite (file photo)
William Hite (file photo)

The best moments of the afternoon belonged to that estimable Liederist William Hite. His warm, burnished and ardent tenor matched a communicative personality that engaged perfectly with the sentiments of romance and longing that so many of Wolf’s male songs summon. A direct manner and conversational German allowed him to embody the composer’s aesthetic and get straight to the heart of musical and emotional art.

This video illustrates some of the wonted chemistry, but it must be added that great as he is, Skovhus here has nothing on Hite.

A blessing on the happy mother
who bore you so sweet,
so elect in beauty;
my yearning wings its way to you!
You, so gracious of gesture,
you, the fairest on earth;
you, my jewel, my bliss;
a blessing on you, my sweet!

When I yearn from afar
and contemplate your beauty,
how I tremble
and groan past concealing!
In my heart
I feel rebellious flames
that destroy my peace.
Ah, madness seizes me!      [Eric Sams]

The recital could have ended at that moment, or perhaps with a reprise of “Was für ein Lied”, as others have suggested, rather than with the soprano’s final, comic number.

What kind of song shall be sung to you
that would be worthy of you? Where can I find it?
I’d like best to delve it from deep in the earth,
never before sung by any creature;
a song that no man or woman, not even the oldest,
has ever heard or sung until this day.     [Eric Sams]

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

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