Hugo Wolf finished his Spanisches Liederbuch in 1890 when he was 30 (13 years before succumbing to syphilitic insanity). A reconstructed Wagnerian, he specialised in forward-looking settings of backward-looking texts.
His pseudo-Hispanic miniatures, both sacred and secular, explore exquisite degrees of daring and devotion, love and longing, passion and pessimism. The cantilena favours fragmentation over expansion and, even now, the harmonies tend to sound gently other-worldly. Wolf has always attracted artists fond of probing for expressive profundity and subtle nuance. Singing beautifully helps, of course, but in this context it is never enough. For many of us, the vocal/intellectual standard must have been set by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who recorded the Liederbuch in 1967, warmly supported by the pianist Gerald Moore.
On Sunday, at the relatively intimate Alice Tully Hall (capacity 1,096), the interpretive challenge fell to a rather odd couple, Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge. With uncompromising seriousness of purpose, they took telling turns with 34 of Wolf’s 44 austere songs.
The Austrian mezzo-soprano obviously savours the poetry, focuses emotion with natural vigour, conveys whimsy, charm and pain with apt precision. Most important, perhaps, she avoids exaggeration at every quirky turn. And, yes, she sings beautifully.
The British tenor seems equally sensitive yet more self-conscious. Although his voice is small, he commands a big dynamic range, also a good ear for artful effects and impeccable German diction. Unfortunately, he paces nervously about the stage, addresses the floor as much as the audience and blurs the delicate line that separates pathos and mannerism. And, yes, despite his penchant for preciosity, he sings beautifully.
Constantly sympathetic, Julius Drake sustained drama, cumulative logic and easy virtuosity at the keyboard. He also made delirious sense of the impossible patter-clatter of “Klinge, klinge, mein Pandero”.
Incidental intelligence: the management went to great lengths – literally – printing texts and translations for all the songs in the programme booklet. Then they left the houselights so dim that reading became almost impossible.