Wolf: Goethe Lieder

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LABELS: Capriccio
WORKS: Goethe Lieder
PERFORMER: Mitsuko Shirai (mezzo-soprano), Hartmut Holl (piano)
Goethe could be very touchy about composers setting his poetry to music. He famously sent Schubert’s package packing, return to sender; but what would he have made of Hugo Wolf? In this Goethe anniversary year, Mitsuko Shirai adds her voice to a catalogue already resonant with the likes of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig and Felicity Lott, to celebrate Wolf’s probing ‘musico-poetic conception’, as he described his own responses to Goethe.


Shirai and her husband, Hartmut Holl, capture powerfully the unique concentration of these settings in pacing, phrasing, and timbres which are everywhere graphically and imaginatively judged. The short graveside meditation, ‘Anakreons Grab’, epitomizes Wolf’s and their mastery: less a setting than a transmutation of word into music, this song moves with the utmost subtlety of melodic inflection, with the piano’s harmonic shaping and tinting acting as a natural extension of the human voice. Shirai’s mezzo-soprano is well-suited to the sombre emotional temperature she so perceptively sustains.


Shirai and Holl are also as keenly aware as Wolf was of the literary context of the Mignon songs. The haunting waif from Wilhelm Meister is characterized here in a mesmeric intensity of voice, stinging anguish in the piano , and a telling volatility of pacing. For Wolf’s recreations of Goethe’s songs of spring, on the other hand, Shirai brings a tender, sometimes wry, directness which is never merely coy. Hilary Finch