Wolf: Goethe Lieder

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COMPOSERS: Wolf
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Goethe Lieder
PERFORMER: Geraldine McGreevy (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67130
Any singer who approaches Hugo Wolf’s settings of Goethe’s verse must be as concentrated of focus and as deeply confident as the composer was himself when he turned to Germany’s greatest poet in the autumn of his own 1888 annus mirabilis. Few singers are, and few do. So it was with some excitement that I started to listen to this generous all-Goethe Wolf recital given by Geraldine McGreevy with Graham Johnson.

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The single most welcome element in this recital is Johnson’s setting of a pace for each song which perfectly reconciles the demands of Wolf’s minutely specific instructions with the character of McGreevy’s soprano. And it is a character which ideally incarnates both the tenderness and the inwardness (two words frequently used by Wolf in his markings) of so many of these songs. Here is a ‘Frühling übers Jahr’ of wide-eyed innocence, yet free of coyness; here, too, a sense of heartfelt wonder at the blossoms of nature and of love in ‘Blumengruss’ and ‘Gleich und gleich’. And McGreevy and Johnson approach the little Twelfth-Night musical charade of ‘Epiphanias’ with a child’s seriousness not, as many singers are tempted to do, as worldly-wise adult observers.

McGreevy’s Mignon songs travel through volatility, vulnerability and solemnity with the Italian waif. And the Suleika songs, those extracts from the Persian poetry of the West-Östlichen Divan whose technique and somewhat alien sensibility make them so difficult to bring off, show both singer and pianist rising admirably to the challenge.

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The competition is very limited. Few female singers take on the Goethe songs, and still fewer present them without the mitigating contrast of the Mörike settings. Both Barbara Hendricks (as we saw last month) and Felicity Lott excel in the double-act. Only Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in 1958 (and, to a lesser extent, Elly Ameling) really tackled the Goethe songs with comprehensive range and seriousness. Her performances, always rich in insight, move from the mesmeric to the arch: in the absence of other female colleagues, the baritone Stephan Genz (Claves) offers a revelatory recital. Hilary Finch