Theater is not only plays and musicals; it is also opera and ballet, and perhaps even sports events. Also canny storytelling and, if they still exist, poetry readings. And certainly masterly song recitals.
By this I mean the English art song, the German lied, and the French melodie, all of which, expertly performed, yield their kind of drama. Let the song be about a relationship of love or hate, a person’s elated response to natural phenomena like flowers and birdsong, or elegiac contemplation of a parting or death, and drama is born, presupposing of course the capturing and holding of a theatrical audience.
I am thinking here of a recent Alice Tully Hall Liederabend, a concert evening of songs by Hugo Wolf in recital by the English tenor Ian Bostridge and the Austrian soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, a major artistic occasion. The songs were culled from the Spanisches Liederbuch (Spanish Songbook), Wolf’s setting of Spanish folk songs and lyrics by lesser known rhymesters—although also one each by Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and the Portuguese master Luis de Camoes—as translated into German verse by two decent minor poets, Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse.
There was first a group of spiritual songs concerning God and Christ, then a secular group, mostly love songs of one kind or another, and rather more satisfying. Bostridge and Kirchschlager are both consummate artists, but there was a difference. He was affected and posturing—which, in the past, he wasn’t, or just barely—whereas she was perfect and adorable.
The white-bread, gangly, Oxford undergradish (he is indeed an ex-Oxonian) Bostridge has the requisite voice and technique, but his physical mannerisms now cry out for the discretion of the CD, sparing us the distracting carryings-on. The tenor swayed to the right and left, sometimes threatening to fall on the piano—at which Julius Drake superbly supported the singers, albeit as an accompanist, not as a crutch. Worse yet, Bostridge kept taking little—or not so little—listing walks toward the footlights and back again, rather like an as yet novice sleepwalker.
One might also have quarreled with his dynamics, which seemed excessive at times, as were his exaggerated facial expressions. It made me nostalgic for the recitals of the greatest singer among my coevals, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He remained upright, close to the piano, without making faces like the hapless little girl in the Hilaire Belloc poem. The voice acted out the meanings of what it sang, a dignified kind of theater, without unleashed histrionics.
But Kirchschlager made up for everything—and then some. The singers alternated after every one or two songs. When not singing, each sat on a chair well to the right of the piano. As one finished and headed for the chair, the other was crossing him or her on the way toward the piano. The tenor did this deadpan, whereas the soprano with a slightly sly, almost mischievous smile.
Once Angelika sang, she was truly angelic, with understated but charmingly varied facial expressions, whatever subtly enhanced the text. Drama was exuded by the eyes, and surged from the versatility of the voice. That she is a lovely woman added to the expressiveness of the performance. (Personally, I would not allow a pachyderm like Stephanie Blythe on a concert stage no matter how good her voice.)
The last song she delivered in her crystalline yet also warm soprano, “Geh, Geliebter, geh jetzt!” (Go, Beloved, Go Now), was one of my supreme concertgoing experiences. In the text, a girl after a night of lovemaking urges her lover to be off with the dawn, lest prying neighbors’ eyes and malicious tongues put paid to the lovers’ nocturnal trysts.
There was more true, deep feeling in the soprano’s rendition of that one lied than in an entire recital by so many other singers. Then, delightfully introduced by Drake—as apt with his words as with his fingers—we got for an encore a duet by Schumann, which recalled for me an evening at Carnegie Hall: a joint recital by Kirchschlager and the marvelous British baritone Simon Keenlyside, featuring several such duets.
But what about the songs themselves? I prefer Wolf’s similar Italienisches Liederbuch, a setting of songs from the Italian, and even more so the lieder from neither of the songbooks, but superb settings of great poems by the likes of Goethe and Mörike, exalted or shattering as very little in the two song cycles is.
But Hugo Wolf is always interesting. I have a little brochure entitled Das Lied, and subtitled (I translate) “A German Contribution to World Culture,” a collection of essays by various hands (including a lovely prose poem by the distinguished Ingeborg Bachmann), published as an elaborate program booklet in conjunction with a series of concerts and master classes in the fall of 1990, presided over by Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Mitsouko Sirai and Hartmut Höll, and sponsored by the International Hugo Wolf Society of Stuttgart.
I definitely wasn’t there, alas, and have no idea how the brochure came into my possession. In any case, it contains the text of a talk by the eminent French philosophy professor and music scholar Andre Tubeuf, in which he aptly characterizes Wolf’s work as “l’apogée désespérée d’un genre,” the desperate high point of an art form, which Wolf’s lieder assuredly are.
This brings to mind an incident from the distant past, when Fischer-Dieskau gave a series of lieder recitals in Carnegie Hall. The last of them was to have been all Hugo Wolf, but the crass impresario Sol Hurok persuaded the baritone to switch to all Schubert, which, he claimed, sells better. Emerging disappointed from the concert, I ran into the legendary music critic B. H. Haggin, who beamed at me and exclaimed, “Wasn’t it wonderful?” It would have been more so, I replied, had it remained Wolf. Haggin stared at me in disbelief: How could anyone prefer Wolf to Schubert? Well, by and large, I did. And still do.