Online Journal

Geraldine McGreevy – soprano
Graham Johnson – piano
Hyperion CDA 67130

51 Gedichte von J.W. Goethe, nos. 2-9, 13, 19, 20, 22, 24-30, 32, 36, 40, 41, 48, 49; Gretchen vor dem Andachtsbild der Matter dolorosa; Wanderers Nachtlied: TPT 75'43

Hugo Wolf's Goethe-Lieder date from 1888 and 1889. They were preceded by collections of settings of Mörike and Eichendorff and succeeded by the great Italian and Spanish Songbooks. Wolf's composing career burned brightly but briefly, some 250 songs in the ten years before his breakdown in 1897, and then six years' silence before his death, aged only 43, in 1903. TheMörike-Lieder represent what we think of as the quintessential Wolf – by turn humorous, ironic, quirky, romantic or spiritual – but in reality, Wolf was cutting his teeth on a poet, almost unknown at the time, whose sensibilities exactly matched his own and enabled him to create a musical language that mirrored the unsentimental pared-down lyrics he chose to set. The success of these songs led him to turn to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, anything but unknown, poems already set by Wolf's greatest predecessor, Franz Schubert. Wolf's Goethe settings can be just as concise as the Mörike-Lieder (compare 'Blumengruss' with 'Das verlassene Mägdlein' from the earlier set to see Wolf's economical but telling harmonic treatment of the tiniest of motifs), but where necessary ('Ganymed', 'Kennst du das Land') he paints on a larger canvas, creating structures which are almost symphonic in scale and in their ferocious concentration.

As for McGreevy herself...hers is a young-sounding soprano voice, large enough to ring out satisfyingly in the biggest climaxes, but capable also of quiet, intimate singing.

This fine disc includes 22 of the 51 Gedichte von J.W. von Goethe, plus two earlier settings (from 1878 and 1887), in performances which time and time again are illuminated by the conviction and intensity these songs demand. I was less than impressed by Graham Johnson's recent survey of the songs of Ernest Chausson (reviewed in Online Journal last month), so it is good to report that here he is back on form, playing with both precision and imagination. Perhaps Wolf simply suits him better, the composer's sharp but restless mind matched by Johnson's very immediately-responsive playing. I was particularly struck by his way with 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt', a curious mixture of spontaneity and control, which Johnson captures perfectly. The beauty of his quiet playing is noticeable (ppp diminuendo in the closing bars of 'So lasst mich scheinen'). I felt he was holding back a little from a real fortissimo just once or twice in the bigger songs, and a few splashes would have been forgivable in return for a little unbuttoned exuberance at the end of 'Hochbeglückt in deiner Liebe'. But Johnson's partnership with Geraldine McGreevy seems to have inspired him to explore these songs with some profoundly-moving results. As for McGreevy herself, she has really got under the skin of both music and text. Hers is a young-sounding soprano voice, large enough to ring out satisfyingly in the biggest climaxes, but capable also of quiet, intimate singing. Most importantly, she is enormously flexible in terms of both colour and textual response – listen to the line 'Ein sanfter Wind von blauen Himmel weht' in 'Kennst du das Land': repeated notes on the page, transformed in this performance into a phrase of memorable beauty. In short, she is an ideal interpreter of this repertoire. My only criticism is of an occasional lack of support in the easy middle register, which leaves her slightly (very slightly) under the note when moving higher. Bars 9-10 of 'Ganymed' – the first song on the disc – suffer, and yet the F-sharp she touches a little later, in the phrase 'dein Gras drängen sich an mein Herz' is integrated quite beautifully. But, to put this into perspective, over the course of the whole disc probably only a dozen or so notes are affected. The rest is artistry of the highest order.

Graham Johnson's booklet is, as always, exemplary (over 100 pages of information, analysis and reflection, and, needless to say, full texts and translations) and I look forward to dipping into this disc for many years to come – it really is quite special. Maybe a young British baritone can be persuaded to record a companion disc of the remaining songs?

David Jones  

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