For a fellow who battled depression for most of his relatively short life, Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) wrote some lovely, uplifting music. His best-known work is probably the Italian Serenade, a ridiculously delightful seven-minute concoction originally written for string quartet, and often performed in a chamber music version.
But Wolf's greatest legacy is certainly his luscious music for voice; and happily for us, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has provided ample opportunity in recent years to sample this deeply satisfying and rather under-appreciated material.
Wolf wrote two large sets of lieder based on nationalistic themes in the last decade of the 19th Century: the Italian Songbook and the Spanish Songbook. Both are arranged in a loosely theatrical manner, especially the Italian Songbook— which, when performed in a Chamber Music Society program two seasons ago, almost had the feel of an operetta.
Sacred vs. secular
The earlier Spanish Songbook opens with a group of sacred songs, consisting of music that's gentle and probing, as opposed to heaven-storming. This music is rich and touching, but it seemed almost a dutiful prelude to the secular songs— which were, truth be told, just much more fun to hear.
The transition from the sacred to the profane also marked an enrichment in the presentation of the evening's two singers. Dual recitals are a rather tricky endeavor: Should the performers be totally in sync, stylistically and technically, or is something of divergence an interesting twist? The British tenor Ian Bostridge and the Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager fall into the latter category.
Bostridge is one of those performers who are longer on charm than vocal equipment. Especially at the beginning of this recital, his dynamic and tonal range sounded constricted. His voice bloomed as the material became more expansive, and his increasingly relaxed stage manner was a physical manifestation of his enhanced warmth and range as a vocalist.
Kirchschlager, a native of Vienna, faced no similar apparent technical challenges. From the first page of music, her phrases were broadly colored and carefully sculpted. She sings from toe to head; the voice emanates from the whole body, not just the vocal chords. She finds different glints of color to match the dramatic turns of the songs.
Kirchschlager has been a regular performer for the Chamber Music Society— which, in its customary fashion, seems to have caught a ride with a rising star.
The recital included 39 of Wolf's 44 four Spanish songs, making for an unusually long evening, but the performance built an engaging rhythm, and by the last 30 minutes of singing, Bostridge and Kirchschlager found a chemistry that illuminated the sweet, romantic poetry of Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse, not to mention Wolf's often exquisite melodies, which are infused with a lush post-Wagnerian harmonic sensibility.
Julius Drake's superbly sensitive piano playing tied everything together for this rare treat.