Songs Sad and Sardonic

Artwork by Akg London

Nobody composed better art songs than Franz Schubert. Many tried, and Hugo Wolf came close. In his 43 years — a life cut short by syphilis and insanity — he produced some 300 songs, feverishly devouring texts by virtually every Romantic German poet and filling their every pore with music sublime, sometimes witty, more often agonized. Like Schubert, he failed at composing opera (although his comedy Der Corregidor merits revival); like Schubert, he knew how to compose music with opera’s power to represent intense actions or thoughts in stunning detail, but within the span of two or three minutes with a solo singer and a pianist.

Wolf’s song legacy has been amply recorded. Great singers of today or the recent past — Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elly Ameling, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf — show up among the Schwann Catalog’s listings. There is one Hugo Wolf recording project, however, that stands apart and above all other efforts; it has just been reissued in midprice on EMI Classics, and must never again be allowed to vanish: five discs representing the labors of the Hugo Wolf Society, nearly half the total song legacy, recorded between 1931 and ’38, enlisting the services of an awe-inspiring list of the time’s finest singers of the German language, both opera stars and concert artists. They all belong to a glorious past; the last to go was the soprano Tiana Lemnitz, who died in 1994.

Confronted with the two columns of fine print that constitute the "Wolf" entry in the latest Schwann, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the recorded repertory contained no such treasures, no complete Beethoven piano sonatas or Mozart operas. To make such recordings possible, the smart marketers at EMI organized subscription societies: If so many prospective buyers kick in so much money in advance, we’ll go ahead and record Wolf, or Mozart at Glyndebourne, or Artur Schnabel’s Beethoven. The Wolf project was the first; the great British publication The Gramophone got down on its journalistic knees month after month during 1931 to plead for subscribers. The plan worked; we can sample its fruits even today. The Mozart Opera Society’s Don Giovanni, recorded at Glyndebourne in 1936 under Fritz Busch and currently listed on the Pearl label, is still the best version you’ll ever hear; Schnabel’s set of Beethoven’s "32," on EMI Classics, is a mountain of probity few will dare to scale.

And now we have the Wolf once again: starting off with nearly an hour of tense, dramatic singing by the astonishing mezzo Elena Gerhardt at the height of her career; the purity of Tiana Lemnitz in some of the simpler, pastoral songs; "Prometheus" delivered as if from a mountaintop by Friedrich Schorr, the foremost Wotan of his time; the suave, delicious humor in Gerhard Hüsch’s "Epiphanias," Goethe’s folkish retelling of the Three Kings on their way to the manger; Helge Roswaenge’s hair-raising "Fire-Rider" (for which, the legend goes, the usually placid singer’s orange juice had been spiked); John McCormack’s ecstatic delivery of "Ganymede"; and on and on. Gerald Moore is at the piano for most of the performances, collaborating with incomparable skill. More than a historical document, this set, its ancient sound astonishingly well restored, captures the dedication that created it, back in the days when a love of music and of the best way to serve it were the prime motivating forces that kept the record industry alive.

After Wolf, who died in 1903, there were the late songs of Mahler, some early tonal songs by Schoenberg and Berg, and some minor efforts by Pfitzner, but there were no new poets to stimulate the continuance of the German art song. The one great exception, however, was Hanns Eisler, who for a time was part of the refugee contingent here in Los Angeles, and who, working mostly with Bertolt Brecht, produced a remarkable set of songs they called The Hollywood Songbook. The poems aren’t all about Hollywood — frequent recipient of contempt from both poet and composer — but they are almost all bitter, cynical, aching with homesickness. Given Eisler’s proletarian leanings, you shouldn’t expect the subtle sophistication of Wolf’s songs; the 46 songs of The Hollywood Songbook are, for the most part, simple, folkish and not very artful. Brecht far preferred Eisler’s kind of song to that of his other collaborator, Kurt Weill, whose music could easily seduce the attention away from the text. Yet there is beauty in these artless, endearing songs, and power.

The new London recording, part of its "Entartete Musik" series that has admirably surveyed the broad repertory by composers considered "degenerate" under the Nazis (and often murdered by them as well), is sung by the splendid young baritone Matthias Goerne, who performed the songs in a marvelous if underattended concert here several months ago; Eric Schneider is the pianist. To my knowledge Goerne has not yet recorded any songs of Hugo Wolf, but he surely will; his voice is exactly right, with that rare power to seek out the drama in a song text and make it work on a concert stage.

During my student year in Vienna (rather a while ago, if you must know), my friends told me that two large-scale musical works would be my best guide to understanding the Viennese musical soul. One was Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina, which was in repertory at the State Opera. The other was Franz Schmidt’s oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, taken from the Book of the Revelation, the description by St. John the Divine of the Book With Seven Seals wherein lay the pertinent facts about the destiny of mankind. I attended both, over two long evenings that revealed to me, above all, the extent of pain that extreme boredom can produce. The Viennese audience, in both cases, greeted this thoroughly dreadful music with the ultimate ovation: complete silence interlaced with adoration. Pfitzner’s opera, which was produced at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival a couple of years ago and was greeted with a differently motivated kind of silence, has been around on disc for some time. Now comes the Schmidt, in its full uncoiling, running just under two hours, grinding and groaning under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst, wonderfully performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Stig Andersen and René Pape as, respectively, St. John and the Voice of God, and vividly recorded as if the Almighty himself were at the console. There are already three older versions of the work, would you believe, all recorded live under less than ideal conditions. Here it is now: last week’s schnitzel, congealed and stale, but elegantly served.

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