April 15, 2003

Two tenors go wild in Hugo Wolf extravaganza

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the death of composer Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), Symphony Center recently brought in two of the world?s leading tenors?Thomas Hampson and Robert Holl?to perform two separate concerts of his songs. Biographically, Wolf shares much with the lied composers he sought to equal in his music: like Schubert, he died prematurely of syphilis and spent his final days, as did Schumann, in a Viennese asylum. He came of age in Vienna?then the music capital of the world?and became entangled in the fierce aesthetic debates that raged in the city?s periodicals. Upon arriving in Vienna, Wolf declared allegiance to the ?progressive avant-garde??in his day associated with Wagner and Liszt?and began to claim the one compositional realm overlooked by most Wagnerians: the lied. While Brahms, Wagner, and Liszt encouraged Wolf to pursue large-scale forms, it is as an enigmatic, fragmentary miniaturist of great stature that he has been remembered.

Wolf?s fame in the lied genre and his careful treatment of the pre-given texts led him to be called the ?Poet?s Composer.? (One can observe this in Wolf?s titles, which always read in the form ?Poems by Eduard Mörike, set to music by Hugo Wolf?.) But as Eric Sams and Susan Youens have pointed out, Wolf?s music is often at odds with the aesthetic ideologies of the corresponding texts; often we can hear the piano and voice mimicking the conflict between music and poetry. Aside from the relationship between Wolf and his poets, there was a strong ?anxiety of influence? exerted on him by previous composers. In using texts of Eichendorff and Goethe especially, Wolf was very mindful of the tradition of Schubert and Schumann. He once claimed that he never set a poem that had been already successfully set.

Wolf?s rather ambivalent attitude towards progress can best be observed in a song Robert Holl performed: ?Heimweh? (?Homesickness?). Mörike?s poem does not stray from the perennial tropes of the distant beloved and the strange foreignness of nature, which were both present in an Eichendorff setting also performed by Holl. Unlike the earlier Eichendorff lyric, Mörike?s treatment uses more ambiguous rhythmic structures, avoiding the more regular quatrains of the earlier poet. Wolf picks up on these themes through his treatment of chromatic material within a tonal context. Rather than seeing tonal expansion take place?a gradual undermining of traditional diatonic-oriented structure?we hear an alternation between the Old World and New World. The simple diatonic material, like the strangely familiar flowers the wanderer encounters, has a false appearance; the structure underlying the larger tonal progressions?an enharmonic minor thirds chain utilizing symmetrical constructions to which diatonic material is highly adverse?conflicts with the more local, easy-going nature of the near-folksong piano accompaniment. Likewise, when the protagonist of the poem?the ?homeless wanderer??cries out that the beautiful flowers on banks of the ever-present brook are but a semblance of beauty and pledges to go forward (even if he has to blind himself with his tears), Wolf responds with his most chromatic shift, created by juxtaposing small isolated sections of harmlessly simple musings; the result is a false appearance of sentimentality. The impression leaves one regarding homesickness not as a longing to return to paradise, but rather as a sense of total disorientation, where the fantasies of home and away mingle rather indeterminately.

In light of Wolf?s somewhat alienated affinities towards the early ?classic? German romantic tradition, Thomas Hampson?s reincarnation of the composer?s songs seemed to capture some of their original spirit. Hampson, very popular on the opera circuit at the moment, shined during songs such as ?Abschied? (a humorous song about an all-too-nosey critic that allowed for a bit of on-stage acting) and ?Der Feuerreiter.? The latter serves as a good example of Wolf compressing an opera into a single lied. Hampson and Barenboim also collaborated well on some of Wolf?s ?folksongs,? which attempt to make their point through a contrived dilettantism.

My first acquaintance with Robert Holl was through a concert series he organized in Vienna entitled ?Das Wort zum Klingen bringen? (?making words sound musically?), in which performances of 19th-century lieder were accompanied by readings of contemporary poetry. An avid collector of 18th- and 19th-century poetry prints, Holl takes an approach decidedly more text-oriented than most other singers. His words are not read but intoned, the result being a midway point where speech is heard becoming song. Put less romantically, Holl?s voice rarely centers on a singular musical pitch as notated in the score, but oscillates in a manner reminiscent of the indeterminate pitch content of speech (although never excessively?fidelity to the notes is always maintained). This approach is more successful with some repertoires than others. For example, Holl?s recording of Schubert?s Winterreise?where unison and octave doublings between the voice and piano abound?required several listenings before my initial reaction against the frequent ?out?of?tune? notes wore off. The issue of always needing to match the piano, however, is not as present in Wolf?s lieder as it is in Schubert?s or Schumann?s, as the two parts are rarely set in ?harmony? with one another: not only are there frequent harmonic dissonances between the parts in a technical, musical sense, but the conflicting ideologies between Wolf?s music and his appropriated texts are often rendered musically through the distance between the two parts.

While Holl seemed to be suffering from a slight cold, one also got the sense that his lied persona, unlike Hampson?s, is more suited to a smaller, more intimate concert hall (a previous concert experience attests to this). His best performances came during songs that were less dramatic and took on the character of hymns (such as ?Verborgenheit,? ?Gebet,? and ?Denk es, o Seele!?). His rendition of Wolf?s Michelangelo lieder?one of the last pieces that the composer wrote before losing sanity?was especially poignant as well.