The Times, February 19 2018
Anna Picard
Wolf: Italienisches Liederbuch, London, 16. Februar 2018
Concert review: Diana Damrau/ Jonas Kaufmann/ Helmut Deutsch at the Barbican
How silly lovers are. How selfish in their delight and despair. How puffed up with pride and longing and jealousy. Drawn from anonymous texts from Tuscany and Venice, the 46 songs in Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch ricochet between bliss and agony. Scored for male and female voice and piano, they are not a song cycle per se but a sequence of love-drunk miniatures, tinted after the styles of Schubert, Schumann and Wagner, and crimped with harmonic ambiguities.

Reordered and grouped into four sections by the pianist Helmut Deutsch, the tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the soprano Diana Damrau, Wolf’s songs were presented as a fragmentary history of a volatile romance. This was not an event for Valentines. Flirting, bickering, yielding and parting, Kaufmann’s he and Damrau’s she revelled in the repetitions and contradictions of neurotic obsessive love. Only the first (Auch kleine Dinge) and final (Ich hab in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen) songs remained in their usual place, making this a story of disenchantment in which Damrau’s character, sparkling and supple of tone, and fully engaged with each syllable of the text, emerged as a terrible flirt.

Lieder recitals are fascinating tests of acting ability. There was too much mugging, especially from Kaufmann, whose fan base obliged by laughing over the final cadences. This was frustrating, for the cadences are where the mania and genius of Wolf’s writing are most clearly felt. Deutsch’s delicacy and precision, the opulent folding of colour in Ihr seid die Allerschönste and the Mahlerian shimmer of O wüsstest du, wie viel ich deinetwegen deserved more space to land and register. Not until the opiate barcarolle of Sterb’ ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder, sung ravishingly and Wagnerianly by Kaufmann, did things settle. There were flowers for the singers from the audience and from the Barbican, but none for Deutsch. The campaign for a pianist’s bouquet begins here.

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