Before I begin, you should know I have never heard of the Austrian composer Hugo Wolf or his music before, that was until I attended last night’s concert at the Barbican Centre to see and hear his Italienisches Liederbuch (1890-1;1896) performed by soprano Diana Damrau, tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.
Based on that, I am in no position to give a critique of the performance by these renowned performers, yet I can share with you my thoughts on what it was like to immerse myself with their witty, playful, and, at times, dramatic interpretation of Wolf’s wonderful music.
I am no stranger to Deutsch and Kaufmann performing together. In fact, it was only a year ago that I saw them at the same venue performing works by Schumann, Duparc and Britten. (Read my review here.) You get the sense that Kaufmann and Deutsch have an unbreakable friendship, professionally and musically, that it would be hard to imagine them performing German song or Lieder with any other soloist or pianist. I’ve seen Damrau perform at the MET HD live event of Pearl Fishers too (read my review here), and watched her from a trending Youtube clip of her heart-stopping performance as the Queen of the Night (click here for the video). Her coloratura really shined through here, and it is one of the signature performances that made her famous. Put together, last night was a performance by three tremendously important classical music artists. It was a first-class concert.
Ideally, for concerts like Italienisches Liederbuch, that’s 46 songs written by Wolf with set translations by Paul Heyse, you need to hear the German diction and every note on the piano key, but sadly the coughing brigade was out to hunt the innocent ears of the audience. It was distracting 50% of the time, and that’s a large percentage. This is part of another topic of discussion, but for someone who wanted to hear the music for what it was, for the first time, I didn’t get it. I hope that Damrau, Kaufmann and Deutsch decide to sit in a studio and record a CD for everyone to hear one day, without any distracting noises.
Deutsch is a master pianist who has been at his A-game for some time. I’ve heard him on multiple CDs and his music making is crisp, filled with deep emotion and continuous momentum. Alongside Damrau and Kaufmann, they have been on tour performing the same work all over Germany, Vienna and now in London. They are off to Barcelona and Luxembourg in the next few days. The synergy and connection between all of the artists were crystal clear last night. You could tell they all had some artistic respect for one another.
At first, the songs and poetry were quite a mystery to me. It was noted in the programmes notes that the singers can change the order of the 47 songs as they please, and from seeing Damrau and Kaufmann’s order I noticed a pattern they choose in order to achieve some dramatic effect and keep the music and sentiments somewhat separated.
There’s no set overarching storyline. In fact, it isn’t necessarily important to know what’s going on. The vocal lines and acting by both Kaufmann and Damrau made it easy to follow and accessible. It started off positive and lighthearted. Kaufmann heroically sang about love for the world and God (Gesenget sei, durch den Welt…). Then, Damrau embraced her green silk pashmina, wrapped around her neck, and smiled. She sang of adoration for nature and the green meadows (Gesegnet sei das Grun). But, all the sudden, it moved onto mothers disapproving their daughter’s boyfriend (Man sagt mir..).
The tone had immediately changed. Kaufmann sang with tenderness and pathos to the slower songs such as, ‘Tonight I rose at midnight’ (Heut’ Nacht erhab ich…) Deutsch played beautiful notes like rain drops falling off the glass of the transparent house Damrau’s character sought for to see through her lover’s heart. ‘If only your house were as transparent as glass’ (O war’ dein Haus…)
After the first pause, Damrau and Kaufmann got involved in a feast of domestic arguments as a couple mocking one another. They were asking each other to be quiet (Schweig’ einmail still), considering becoming a monk to avoid being name called (Geselle, voll’n wir uns in Kutten…) and toying with each other’s feeling, saying ‘I’m in love, but not with you! (Ich bin verliebt, doch eben nicht in dich.)
Eventually, the lovers stopped their quarrelling and asked for peace, which happened rather quickly with ‘Let us now make peace’ (Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen.) The atmosphere moved onto a somber one, where mothers were told their sons had to go to war (Mir ward gesagt). Kaufmann sweetly sang the voice of a soldier who asked that his dead body be left on the soil of flowers than inside a grave (Sterb’ inch, so hullt in Blumen Meine Glieder).
The diversity of songs and arrangements were slightly random, but the concerts concluded with a mixture of emotions. Some truly touching and heartbreaking. You got to see Damrau and Kaufmann sing in a comfortable and pleasant state. It wasn’t as dramatic as a tragic opera, with 200% passion, but it worked better this way given the short and ever-changing themes within Wolf’s work. I certainly enjoyed myself. Dear Barbican Centre, can we have more concerts like these, please. (Thanks!)
Photos by KyokoLondon – follow her on Twitter here.
The event information on the Barbican Centre’s website can be found here.
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