Italienisches Liederbuch (Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau/Moore)*
This is the best ever complete recording of a Wolf songbook. It improves on an earlier Italian (Seefried/ Fischer-Dieskau/ Werba/Demus) in having just one pianist and that one Moore; and also in abandoning the tiresome pretence that these songs are somehow more stirring if mixed up. Better still, the present team improves on its own records. The piano has a sounder balance than on their DGG Spanish songs; there is no fluctuation of pitch, and only the faintest whisper of pre-echo. Not only are translations provided this time, but they are fluent and assured; and so are the notes (also by Walter Legge).
A few less acceptable notes are sounded. The low keys are on a highish scale (12 out of 46). I doubt if Wolf thought of the voice as a transposing instrument; top notes are worth the effort, especially when (as often) the effort is what his music means; and a change of key may deny access, eg to those with absolute pitch.
But these interpreters certainly understand the language, of the Italian songs. This was German, according to Wolf himself. Really his territory goes far wider - to such an extent that two great poets in their lyrical ballads once had to divide it between them, Coleridge writing of “persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic” and Wordsworth of “such feelings as will be found in every village and its vicinity”. These contrasts could well define Wolf's range from the Mörike to the Italian songs; and the latter have a truly Wordsworthian sense of the loveliness and wonder of the everyday world.
Most are about sexual love (the poetry of the people). Those for women's voice are less intense. There Wolf's music observes and comments; in the men's songs it lives and experiences. In the latter, we feel the touch of a master; in the former, of a mistress. Thus the sexes are presented with different problems. The woman's are those of breadth. Her voice must compass all tones from hurt to happy, from hectoring to hesitant; she must be able to sing about poisonous snakes with suitable venom (as in Verschling' der Abgrund) or about a multiplicity of lovers with suitable abandon (as in Ich hab' in Penna).
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has already burnished such talents to a dazzling perfection in previous Wolf recordings-not only of the Italian and Goethe songs but of the Keller set, where also the musical character-study of women has (as Walter Legge observes) an interesting affinity with the Italian style. Femininity and perfection both suggest the last word; and in these songs the final phrase is often sung with a special inflexion. This is fine where such an effect is indicated, whether in words (as in Du denkst mit einem Fädchen mich zu fangen) or in music (as in Wer rief dich denn?); but not everyone will see the point of the jesting at the end of Ihr jungen Leute or Mein Liebster ist so klein. However, these are interpretations of great refinement and subtlety, which may have to be re-heard to be perceived. Then we realize that the essence so clearly distilled in the last line has been delicately flavouring the song throughout its performance. Such artistry gives new life to the music. The characterizations are never less than real and often ideal, while even the deeper songs usually assigned to a man's voice are well within this great soprano's interpretative compass; thus Wir haben beide is superbly sung. And we are almost persuaded by sheer artistry that Wenn du mein Liebster is at the level of its counterpart Wenn du mich mit den Augen streifst.
In all this we seem to hear an actress singing; in the men's songs, a singer acting. Again, some such effects are indicated by or in the music. In Hoffärtig seid Ihr for example the vehemence is clearly called for; elsewhere (eg, Und willst du deinen Liebster; Dass doch gemalt) it might have been left till called for. True, the ffs are marked; but need they - in the miniature lyric genre - be quite so marked? There are also one or two perplexing tempi. Und steht Ihr früh sounds more zestful than restful. Conversely, Sterb ich, so hüllt in Blumen becomes grave music in too many senses. Of course its potpourri of love, death and flowers would recall Wagner to anyone, let alone his greatest disciple; Wolf's key, his compound time, his syncopated tonic pedal all pay eloquent homage to Tristan Act 2. But the vital difference between Lieder and theatre is obscured by preferring a Wagnerian tempo to Wolf's own metronome marking. I for one find that molto meno mosso means being much less moved. However, these are mostly matters of personal preference. The Italian masterpieces are so exalted that they afford a vast variety of views. Fischer-Dieskau's strong dramatic singing will work wonders for some listeners (just as Gérard Souzay's gentler lyric approach will for others); his power is never uncontrolled, and often serenely beautiful, as in Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag' erhoben. The dramatic approach too has its own special triumphs. Thus the only costume-piece in this songbook, Geselle, woll'n wir uns in Kutten hüllen (about an acquired habit), is a splendid impersonation; and there is complete affinity with the music of ironic detachment, such as 0 wüsstest du wieviel and Nicht länger kann ich singen (a song of an unsuccessful Italian serenade in which Wolf alludes to his own unperformed Italian Serenade).
If half these songs call for breadth and half for depth, then pity the poor pianist, who has to provide both all the time - and also length, since his responsibility endures throughout the song, setting the tone with his first note, and setting the seal with his last. This is what Gerald Moore does with the entire songbook. Perhaps one has heard the prelude to the first song more assured, the postlude to the last I more dazzling; but only from him. Perhaps some may find the playing mannered here and there (eg in the postlude to Wie lange schon). But if so its manners are always exquisite, like its feeling and technique; and who else, in what comparable field of human endeavour, has ever been world champion for a lifetime?
It seems that these three great artists together have now almost established a monopoly of Wolf songbooks. But I think that such a monopoly would be declared to be in the public interest; and, in that same interest, why not a complete recording of the Mörike, or the Eichendorff, or the Goethe songs?
The Musical Times, Jun. 1969 (p. 642-643) © the estate of eric sams