Because these songs aren't well known, it's important to hear them in context. Richard Stokes's programme notes are superlative. His knowledge of the background is encyclopaedic. He's analytical, and draws well-judged comparisons with other composers, citing specific works, some known mainly to specialists, but does so in a style that general readers might be spurred on to explore further. This is what intelligent music writing should be about. Anyone seriously interested in Wolf will need this disc, but Stokes's notes are worth the price alone.
Although most of these songs date from Wolf's youth, "none of them is insignificant", writes Stokes, and explains why. Even in his teens, Wolf was well read, experimenting with different poets as if he were learning to hear the "music" that made each poet unique. Wolf sets Chamisso, Hebbel, Körner and Rückert and poets whose names are obscure today, some even anonymous. In Körner's "Ständchen" (early 1877) Wolf observes the hesitant changes of mood perhaps more pointedly than the poet does. The flow may not be conventional, but it's emotionally sensitive.
Wolf was also well informed about other composers. Beethoven's setting of Freidrich von Matthison's "Andenken" is exceptional, but Wolf finds interesting things to say himself, particularly in the piano line. Wolf revered Schumann but even at this age was wary of imitation. "Whereas Schumann composed a chorale-like setting with close harmonies", writes Stokes, Wolf's setting of Rückert's "So wahr die Sonne scheinet" (February 1878) is "altogether more euphoric". Wolf's an exuberant teenager, while Schumann was reverently writing for, and with, Clara, after a long, troubled engagement. Wolf is learning originality. Later in life he didn't set poems unless he felt he had something personal to say.
With the settings of poems by Hoffman von Fallersleben, signs of Wolf's mature style emerge. The poems aren't subtle, but this gives Wolf the freedom to dash them off in rapid succession as the excitement inspires him. "Auf der Wanderung" bursts with joie de vivre. The vocal line surges, the piano part cheerful. This is a song for a young man who has open roads and open skies ahead of him. "Ja, die Schönst! ich sag es offen!".begins with a vaguely Schumannesque prelude for the piano, but is very un-Schumann-like in its confidence.
The following year, Wolf planned to write incidental music for Henrik Ibsen's play "Das Fest auf Solhaug". Perhaps the translation didn't sing to him,. "Damnred little poetry", he wrote "I wonder where I shall get the plaster from to clothe in music this home -made carpentry". Yet, as pure music, Wolf's songs, espeially the lovely "Gesang Margits" are beautifully expressive. Did Wolf know Grieg's Solvieg's Song (1876)? Like Wolf's other ventures into opera and music theatre, the parts may be greater than the whole.
The soloists on this recording are Mary Bevan and Quirijn de Lang, and the pianist is Sholto Kynoch. Since the explosion of Wolf recordings after the 2003 centenary of his death, the market is flooded but this disc is unique because of the material. Stone Records' series Hugo Wolf : the Complete Songs is shaping up well, and this disc in particular is a valuable contribution to Wolf studies. Buy it here.