Orchestral works and arrangements (Lear, Stewart/VPO/Gerdes)*




These records raise, and are, an important issue. The idea was trail-blazing - a good way of throwing light on Wolf. But between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. Was Wolf's genius really orchestral; wasn't the piano more his forte?

     He wrote his songs because there was nothing he could do better; he scored them when he had nothing better to do. He presumably intended these arrange­ments for publicity; then as now everything about song-writing was miniature, including the audience. One of his rare hits was in fact scored with the choral-orchestral version of Der Feuerreiter. It had a truly fabulous reception, with cries of “Wolf!”. But disillusion might have ensued with the present performance, which lacks all the essentials of a Feuerreiter - pace, fire, and devil - leaving only the run of the mill. Even this follows a wrong direction, and gets so far from “lebhaft” that the assembling crowds sound like a congregation, their questions like responses.

     At such speeds the solo songs fare little better. Gebet never gets off the ground-the one thing that a prayer ought above all to do. Kennst du das Land, an impassioned summons to travel and adventure, does the very thing it ought not to have done, - namely take a minute longer than necessary. At that rate we can certainly take in more of the scenery, some of it very picturesque- for example Mignon's reference to dragons in caves seems to conjure up Fafner. But the general effect is Lo replace Wolf's technique and colour by Technicolor. Neue Liebe in particular has more than a soupçon of supersong.

     Despite these handicaps Evelyn Lear sings well and intelligently. So does Thomas Stewart in the three Harper songs, where the halting gait and limp rhythm are often in step with the words, eg in An die Türen. But in Prometheus his grip on the Titan loosens. Here the full orchestra is justified in its attempt Lo sound larger than life, which is exactly the sense of the song; but it also sounds larger than the voice, which is not. In the records of the Wolf Society this prodigious music is heard challenging not just Zeus but Wagner himself. Wolf's own music was in a sense born to the stage; and his work was likely, had it been put on, to have proved most royally-like Penthesilea for example. This 25­minute tone-poem re-enacts Kleist's drama of the Amazon queen, her march on Troy, her love-dream, her jealous slaughter of the beloved Achilles. It is, as Frank Walker says, “one of the grandest Romantic conceptions of the 19th century”. But no one found it viable or bearable until the 20th, when the orchestrated version (1937) replaced the castrated version (1903, cruelly cut by Hellmesberger). Now it's every inch a queen. Here is the armoured archeress herself, agleam in brass and afire from strings, all bow and quiver; a mighty vision in sound. The idea seems finely realized both in scoring and performance. With Prometheus, it shows Wolf's genius for the larger forms, eg Amazons and Titans.

     But in the orchestral arrangements of music at a more human level, such as the Italian Serenade, we seem Lo hear inside the ample medium a more refined spirit crying to be let out. That radiant masterpiece has a dismal history of neglect and confusion. The simple facts, available for most of this century, are that Wolf wrote it for string quartet in 1887, suggested its performance on string orchestra in 1890, and scored it for small orchestra in 1892. All in vain; no version was ever performed in his lifetime. His 1892 score was seen through the press, rather dimly, by Max Reger, who corrected a few slips but failed Lo notice several others (some of which have been called “Reger's retouches”). The facts are set out in Dr Hans Jancik's scholarly edition of 1965. Again, this is presumably the first correct version on record. But this time both the scoring and the playing are contestable. Why the variants from the quartet version in bars 302-14, 334-41, 541-50? Why the disregard of äusserst lebhaft, passim? (even so, the detail is blurred, eg bassoon at 64-70, flute at 220-8).

     Perhaps Wolf himself was instrumental in this result. No doubt it was practical of him to seek Lo improve reception by increasing volume. But those already on his wavelength will greatly prefer his own original voice, which already has a phenomenally wide range. And now that the trail has been so brilliantly blazed with this performance of Penthesilea, may we not look forward to further revelations eg the Intermezzo for string quartet; the Sechs Geistliche Lieder for a cappella chorus; the incidental music to Das Fest auf Solhaug; the choral-orchestral Christnacht and Elfenlied; the unfinished opera Manuel Venegas?        


The Musical Times, Dec. 1969 (p. 1258) © the estate of eric sams