WOLF: Orchesterlieder. Penthesilea / Benjamin Appl, bar; Jenaer Philharmonie; Simon Gaudenz, cond / CPO 555 380-2
This fascinating disc combines Wolf’s relatively well-known orchestral suite Penthesilea with the fairly obscure Orchesterlieder. Not that the songs themselves are rare—one will immediately recognize such old favorites as Schlafende Jesuskind, Anakreons Grab, Denk’es o Seele, Prometheus and Fuβreise—but the orchestral settings are indeed uncommon. Poring through the long-winded, overwritten liner notes (what is it with German liner-note writers? They think they’re producing doctoral theses when they churn out this stuff!), we finally learn, near the end, that three of the songs here were not orchestrated by Wolf himself. Sterb’ich, so hüllt in Blumen, from the second Italian Lieder Book, was orchestrated by Max Reger. “Despite many efforts to do so,” no one can yet identify who set Fuβreise’s orchestral score, but Epiphanias was orchestrated by German composer Carl Stueber (1893-1984).
Listening to Appl sing these songs, one is struck by his warm baritone voice and his sensitivity in interpretation, but to be honest, he is not any better than numerous other great baritones (or tenors, or sopranos) who have sung these songs in the past. The novelty is strictly in hearing them in their orchestral versions, and although some of these are quite interesting, many others just sounded like routine Romantic orchestrations to me. I also felt, in certain songs such as Epiphanias that conductor Gaudenz and the Jenaer Philharmonie were just coasting in their performances. A bit more “bite” in the winds and strings would have been welcome, not to mention more incisive rhythms. Gaudenz simply smoothes things out a bit too much.
Now, this doesn’t make this recording a bad one, just not a great one. Surely there are other conductors working in Germany and Austria, such as Constantin Trinks and Kevin John Edusei (and whatever happened to the rest of the latter’s Schubert symphony cycle??), who could have, and would have, made the performances sound less like background movie music and more like what we hear in Wolf’s piano accompaniments. A truly fine conductor would not forget what those sound like when approaching these scored renditions. Prometheus is one of the very few songs here in which the orchestra sounds awake, if still lacking bite. (There’s also a noticeable splice in this song where someone—either Appl or the orchestra—must have screwed up.) Long before this series of songs was over, I really felt sorry for Appl. With better accompaniment, this CD could really have been something special…but sadly, it’s just a good display for him with sad-sack accompaniments. It’s like hearing Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by John Barbirolli or Serge Baudo.
Ironically, Gaudenz and the orchestra play Penthesilea much better than I would have expected, if not as well as some other recordings, thus I have to believe that Gaudenz takes the view that song accompaniments should be drippy and lacking feeling.
Fans of Appl will clearly want this recording. Others can easily pass it by.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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