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When performers come on stage in black flouncy evening dresses and black-tie dinner suits with shiny lapels, it's immediately clear that they are either trying to disguise some faults or that something special is about to happen. The latter proved to be emphatically the case for this very special performance of Hugo Wolf's entire Italienisches Liederbuch. The least of the reasons why it was special is that, after diligent internet research, it was announced that this was the first performance of the entire work since 1994. The Music House was set up with Wolf-period chairs and a table with a crystal carafe and two water goblets as a place for the performers to keep their programs, along with the Wolf-period Steinway Model C of 1887 that is a high point of the Music House collection.
This program points to being a standard part of Martin and Howle's repertoire. That's good, as their voices are a perfect match and their singing is impeccable. Other than a glance at the program while seated and not singing, the program was sung completely from memory, an impressive feat. The dress and stage set blended perfectly with the completely effective gestures and choreography of the performers. The composition was not intended by Wolf to be a strictly-ordered cycle; the arrangement of the pieces tonight was the work of the three performers, in a very successful attempt to make a little play out of the songs. The order, along with a fair amount of acting by the singers, was totally successful.
Although O'Brien admitted that he had performed the entire Liederbuch cycle once before (in November of 1985 as part of his DMA recitals) he may be forgiven for using music.
Several things are linked in my mind to specific songs, such as the stage presence and eye contact both between each singer to the other and with the audience. This was made obvious in "Ihr seid die Allerschönste Weit und Breit" and in Howle's lyric baritone in "Der Mond hat eine Schwere Klag' erhoben." Howle's voice reached a crescendo in "Wenn du mich mit den Augen streifst un lachst," when the text calls for him to "burst forth for sheer joy!" There was plenty of piano to go along, although O'Brien was masterful in leashing in the Steinway, which might otherwise be a wee bit too big for the room.
"Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen, liebstes Leben" was lovely for its unforced singing. Martin displayed consummate gestures and actions in "Wie lange schon was immer mein Verlangen." Her singing brought joy to the heart in "Wie soll ich fröhlich sein und lachen gar," with a counterpoint of funny pantomime of violin playing by Howle.
O'Brien deserves a call-out for his playing throughout the evening, with a special mention for delicateness throughout and brilliance in "Da doch gemalt all' deine Reisen wären."
Howle gets a notice for tenderness in "Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen" and again in the succeeding "Sterb' ich, so Hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder." Martin's part, in contrast to Howle's love-stricken text, is a part to be sung with brittle "scorn, resentment, or humorous tolerance," as said in the program notes. She carried this off excellently; she's perfect for the part, although I would like to hear her sing tender songs some day.
This is one of those performances in which everything: stage setting, instrument, singers, and player, came together to make an evening both brilliant and enjoyable!