The Complete Wolf

Title: Hugo Wolf: The Complete Songs, Vols 1 – 6
Artist: Sholto Kynoch, piano, and various singers
Publisher: Stone Records / Oxford Lieder

The Oxford Lieder Festival, now a substantial enterprise with 30 concerts annually and an international roster of performers, was founded in 2002 by pianist Sholto Kynoch, after he graduated from Worcester. The Holywell Music Room provides an ideal venue with its fine acoustic, distinguished musical history, and loyal audiences.

While concert programmes extend to French chanson and English folksong, the Festival’s heartland remains the core repertoire of German Romantic lieder, in which classical song arguably found its finest expression in poetic settings of intense drama and intimacy.

Lieder place particular demands on the accompanist, whose role is by no means secondary to the singer’s. Many of the most ambitious performance projects and festivals have been masterminded by pianists; the same has been true of recording projects such as Graham Johnson’s complete Schubert songs and Roger Vignoles’ complete Strauss songs for Hyperion, each with a variety of contributing singers. It is in this tradition that Kynoch set out to record the complete songs of Hugo Wolf.

Wolf’s oeuvre represents a more challenging project, artistically and commercially. Written for the most part in a decade of intense creativity in the late 1880s and 1890s, it takes the emotional intimacy of Schubert and Schumann into more demanding musical territory. By comparison with the expansive nostalgia of Strauss’s luscious late Romanticism, Wolf’s songs are more concentrated, inward-looking, even austere, sometimes prefiguring the style of Schoenberg or Berg. Above all they show a unique expressive affinity with the German Romantic poets whose texts he interpreted in music.

Until now, the most significant recording projects were the HMV edition pioneered by the Hugo Wolf society in the 1930s, and three volumes recorded in the 1970s by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Daniel Barenboim. Single discs, focused on the most familiar repertoire, have appeared more recently, most from German or Austrian singers such as Angelika Kirchschlager and Christoph Prégardien. Oxford Lieder’s ambitious project with Stone Records — whose founder, baritone Mark Stone, sings on disc 3 — will be the first complete edition, featuring a mix of established and up-and-coming singers, many of them British, with Kynoch a sensitive accompanist throughout. Volumes 5 and 6 now mark its halfway point.

Its distinctive offering is twofold. First is a commitment to live performance — almost all recordings were made on the afternoon before a Festival performance to avoid audience noise, editing out only the occasional passing motorbike. Since digital technology enables an almost infinite degree of editing, modern studio recordings can lose the excitement, energy and long musical lines of a complete take in live performance; Kynoch’s aim is to recover that freshness, albeit in return for the occasional blemish.

The merits of that trade-off are sometimes debatable: at times a misplaced breath or disruption of the vocal line would have been worth an intervention, though elsewhere the distance in vocal quality and interpretation between some of Kynoch’s younger singers and the recordings of Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau or Prégardien is beyond editing. Sophie Daneman and Stephan Loges are among the more accomplished singers and Mark Stone delivers moments of passion and sensitivity, but to my ear James Gilchrist is in a class of his own, for his rendition of the German texts and a capacity to move, in songs such as An die Geliebte, that demands your life be put on hold.

Judging the singers’ calibre is not entirely the spirit in which to appraise this venture, though. The more substantive distinction of Kynoch’s project is the inclusion of 21 premiere recordings of songs mostly published in the 1970s, postdating the Fischer-Dieskau edition. Since Kynoch groups the songs by poet (echoing the emphasis of their original presentation: Songs by Eichendorff with music by Hugo Wolf), these are distributed between several discs: the majority in volume 4, with four Lenau settings in volume 6 and four Goethe settings to come in volume 9. Collectively they amount to almost a whole CD’s worth of ‘new’ Wolf, and thus a major addition to the repertoire.

Many are early works: engaging vocal miniatures, among which Perlenfischer is especially charming. There is more drama in Abendglöcklein, where the piano evokes the evening bell haunting a tormented soul in anticipation of death. Nacht und Grab stands out with its flowing arpeggios and serene vocal lines, though it’s really in need of more sustained singing than that of Quirijn de Lang here. Das Kind am Brunnen is a disquietingly ambiguous ballad about a child absorbed by his reflection in a well, while his nurse sleeps; is it the boy or only his image that vanishes into the water in the final stanza? Among the Lenau lyrics, the wonderfully mysterious opening of Stille Sicherheit — bringing out the best in baritone Marcus Farnsworth — gradually gives way to a disappointingly conventional declaration of love, suggesting that in 1876 Wolf had yet to find the distinctive quality of psychological insight which marks his later songs.

These pioneer recordings are the most significant achievement of the Oxford Lieder project, and on that count alone it represents a landmark. But Kynoch’s commitment to live performance by young singers should not be diminished by comparison with the all-time great recordings. It renews the lifeblood of a long tradition, which has found a thriving home in Oxford.

Josie Dixon is a Publishing and Research Training Consultant with over 70 university clients internationally.