WOLF: Mörike-Lieder (selections)
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WOLF: Mörike-Lieder (selections)

CD Button Fischer-Dieskau; Sviatoslav Richter, piano. No texts. Pentatone Music CD 27949 02196

Recordings Cover Morike Dieskau Cover 216

HOW MANY SINGERS WOULD FEEL COMFORTABLE sharing a stage with “the greatest living pianist”? Mid-career, Dietrich Fischer–Dieskau performed often with Sviatoslav Richter, the Soviet pianist whose technique and temperament were legendary; the confident singer obviously welcomed this challenge from such a dynamo, even when the piano nearly eclipsed the voice.

In the two artists’ 1973 version of eighteen of Hugo Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder, on this remastered release, Richter seems occasionally to forget he’s not on stage alone. The most striking imbalance occurs in “Der Feuerreiter” (The Firefighter), a song about a disastrous fire with a hallucinatory aftermath. Wolf’s piano writing here demands virtuosity by evoking sounds like the thunderous collapse of buildings or the whirling jets of flame – effects that Richter achieves with stunning power, variety and dramatic force, as the accompaniment takes center stage.

Somehow, though, that unequal contest in “Der Feuerreiter” achieves a certain validity, mirroring nature’s irresistible devastation. And the no-holds-barred approach makes an ideal contrast with the song’s intermittent quiet passages of empathy and desolation; the performance is electric. It’s also bracingly tight; if the piano’s volume dominates, Fischer–Dieskau is its match in terms of rhythm, staying in lockstep note by note as the tempo wildly increases. The singer’s embrace of risk, especially in this live-recorded performance, leads to triumph.

But flamboyance is more the exception than the rule with this composer and the texts used here. The uncannily modern German poet Eduard Mörike, as early as the 1820s and 1830s, can make contemporaries like Wordsworth or Victor Hugo seem tame and wholesome in comparison. And the composer, who died at forty-two in an asylum in 1903, is darkness personified. The performers here embrace Mörike and Wolf’s ironic/depressive moods, which foreshadow the twentieth century’s age of anxiety—in the sardonic, dissonant-flavored and sometimes creepy wedding poems “Bei einer Trauung” and “Peregrina,” or in evoking the specter of illness in “Der Genesene an die Hoffnung” or “In der Frühe.” Their range includes lyrical warmth (“Verborgenheit”) and comic overkill (“Storchenbotschaft,” “Abschied”). 

Such mastery and synergy make this disc an ideal Wolf sampler (or intro), more successful in my view than Fischer–Dieskau’s early ’50s Mörike selections (mostly with pianist Hertha Klust) or the complete 1973 recording of all 53 songs with Daniel Barenboim. This Richter collaboration is a fine complement to the baritone’s complete 1959 recording opposite the more Apollonian Gerald Moore (a version reissued by EMI only in part, in 2010). The younger voice is a little brighter, and Moore is more scrupulous in some details (like the sforzando markings) and more overtly Schubertian in the slightly old-fashioned genre piece “Fussreise” (about a ramble in the country) with its delicate embellishments, pliant walking rhythm and riveting modulations. That sense of history, based on intimate knowledge of the song literature as a whole, is not palpable with Richter. But luckily there’s no need to choose between these two partial versions of the Mörike-Lieder, each unique in its way. —David J. Baker 


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