Wolf: Italienisches Liederbuch

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COMPOSERS: Wolf
LABELS: Ondine
WORKS: Italienisches Liederbuch
PERFORMER: Soile Isokoski (soprano), Bo Skovhus (baritone), Marita Viitasalo (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ODE 998-2D
When Hugo Wolf came across Paul Heyse’s 1860 collection of anonymous popular songs from Tuscany and Venice, he found it impossible to resist their bustling parade of emotions, the quicksilver changes of mood and attitude within and between each vignette. All human life was there; and in 1890 Wolf magicked it into music of his own.

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The Italian Songbook – shared between male and female voices – is one of the trickiest of all Wolf’s collections to bring off. Yet this new recording enters a competitive field, with classic performances from the past, as well as at least three formidable new versions within the last decade. Soile Isokoski, Bo Skovhus and their pianist Marita Viitasalo give performances strong of character and bold of profile. When Isokoski curses her suitor and declares that tears of blood will blind her, the platinum-bright focus of her singing makes you believe every word. And Skovhus is a hot-blooded serenader, his fervent inflection and keen rhythmic sense unfailingly seeking out the harmonic biting point of Wolf’s setting.

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Where they are less impressive is in winkling out the more elusive tones of voice, the little twists of irony and pathos which turn a good performance into a great one. Isokoski finds it hard to be truly flighty or flirtatious; and Skovhus’s baritone lacks the finest control of timbre to sustain thought and tone through a song such as the great ‘If I die’. Dawn Upshaw and Olaf Bär (EMI) offer just this vital eye contact and deep tenderness. And the still unsurpassed Felicity Lott, Peter Schreier and Graham Johnson also present the songs in Wolf’s wise, original order, rather than being tempted to fashion a ‘narrative’ of their own. Hilary Finch