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Wolf: Italian Songbook - Prégardien / Kleiter / Dumno

Wolf: Italian Songbook - Prégardien / Kleiter / Dumno

Challenge Classics  CC 72378

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Hugo Wolf: Italian Songbook

Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Julia Kleiter (soprano)
Hilko Dumno (piano)


Wolf's lieder are often referred to as "symphonic lieder", with an important part of the piano, beside the voice. Writer Paul Heyse (1830-1914). translated from Italian, among other things, a large number of mostly anonymous poems, which he published as the Italienisch Liederbuch. Wolf has put these poems into delightful music, small jewels.

Hugo Wolf, in 1896 - after a four-year period, marked by physical and psychological problems, which later grew more serious and ultimately fatal - composed among other things, the 24 lieder of the Italienisches Liederbuch’s part two. This was his last important composition, followed by only two lieder on texts by Lord Byron and three on texts by Michelangelo.

Today, Wolf is considered one of the most important 19th Century lieder composers, but that recognition was slow in coming. As late as 1931, admirers felt compelled to begin a Hugo Wolf Society to make his lieder better known via gramophone recordings. Needing the least help, however, was the Italienisches Liederbuch, various songs of which came to be loved early on, largely owing to their melodiousness and the accessibility of their content, but doubtless also for their brevity – if ever lieder could lay claim to being “little jewels” it is the 46 of this bundle, which together take up less than 80 minutes. (source: liner notes by Paul Korenhof in the cd "Hugo Wolf - Italienisches Liederbuch")

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Review by John Miller - December 16, 2010

In its excellent series of Lieder recitals featuring Christoph Prégardien, Challenge Classics now brings Hugo Wolf's masterly Italienisches Liederbuch to SACD. Wolf's tragically short career was mostly devoted to song-setting, and in 1891 he began two concentrated bursts of activity on the Italian Songbook, although racked by psychological and physical illness brought on by the final stages of syphilis. The second book occupied him briefly in 1896, and by the Spring of 1898 his condition had deteriorated so much that he was placed in an asylum, where he died in 1903.

Used to setting poems mainly from the often inward-looking German Romantics, Wolf's creativity responded to the stimulus of a publication in the 1860s by Italianophile actor Paul Heyse, who collected and translated many Italian Renaissance poems. Their authors were often unkown, but their exemplars are clearly the great poets such as Dante. Wolf seems to have used the poems to escape from his medical troubles into the bright Mediterranean light, traversing an ever-changing poetic landscape, which he artfully depicted with his piquant harmonies and brilliant melodic gift. 46 poems were set in all, most lasting under 2 minutes; bejewelled miniatures which together now stand as one of the great masterpieces of art song.

The touchstone recording of the Italian Songbook is undoubtedly that of Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, together with Gerald Moore (the original "unashamed accompanist"). Correctly classified by EMI as one of its "Great Recordings of the Century", their interpretation, set down between 1965 and 1967, is a model of fluid expression and word-painting (although some critics consider them too 'artful').

Christoph Prégardien, one of the foremost lyric tenors in recent years, brings his vast lieder experience to this new disc; his mature voice now darkening and taking on baritone colours. Soprano Julia Kleiter, on the other hand, only appeared on the International stage in 2004 with her début as 'Pamina' in Paris. Since then her career has developed with astonishing rapidity. Schwarzkopf was in her early 50's when recording The Italian Songbook, some distance from the young girls featured in the poems, and Kleiter brings her own fresh, youthful portrayal (yet with great depth of sympathy and understanding), to her exquisite cameos.

As admirably demonstrated by Gerald Moore, Wolf's piano parts in this work are, by the composer's own term, 'symphonic'. The pianist is an equal protagonist; Wolf not only writes glorious preludes and postludes, often of a virtuosic nature, but in several songs the piano leads with the melody, the singers almost as afterthoughts. I was very impressed by Hilko Dumno's complete empathy with his singers and their evocations; his inventive, characterful and colourful pianism is one of the highlights of the recording.

Wolf published the songs in two Books, and recitalists often follow the printed order (as do Schwarkopf et al.), although the songs are not specifically numbered, and in no way were intended to be a cycle in the Schubertian sense. Performers are free to make their own selections, or to re-arrange the order of songs in a complete performance. This latter approach is taken by Prégardien, Kleiter and Dumno. Songs from both books are intermixed, and I think I can discern a sequence of subject-related groupings, beginning with songs (tracks 1-7) which depict the important Renaissance idea of serenading as part of courting. Then follows a group dealing with various personal appraisals of the opposite sex, moving to a climax with the most emotionally charged songs, to conclude in gentle, peaceful contemplation and a joyous final paean. This is a very intelligent and effective ordering of the songs, resembling in structure a symphonic tone-poem.

NorthStar Recording Services bring us an exemplary recording, perfectly balanced, with the singers voices emerging from the inky velvet noiseless Galaxy Studios in Belgium. Reproduction of the piano is state of the art, adding to the true sense of "you are there". Such clarity and detail supports and enhances the artistry of the musicians, and provides a delectable sonic experience. The production too is excellent, coming in a box-type digipack with 75 mins of music on the disc, good notes and fine translations of the German texts in English, along with - most helpfully - the original Italian.

Fully exploring the kaleidoscope of human emotions, from despair and passion to satire and wicked wit, this is a very special recording of Wolf's Italian Songbook, and if you have not yet made the work's acquaintance, I urge you to do so.

Simply brilliant - and unmissable. My recording of 2010.

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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