Hugo Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug (1890-91) was written for a Vienna production of Henrik Ibsen's Gildet paa Solhaug (1856). Wolf didn't take kindly to working on commission. "I like the Ibsen play less each day... It is right honestly botched with damned little poetry. I don't know where I shall get the plaster from, with which to clothe in music this home-made carpentry".
Admittedly, Wolf was working from a German translation which may not have captured Ibsen's unique idiom. Shorn of the inherent music in Ibsen's syntax, the plot may well be awkward. Margit is unhappily married to rich old Bengt. Margit's really in love with Gudmund, now an exiled outlaw, but returns to Solhaug. Margit plans to poison Bengt so she can marry Gudmund, whom she does not realize has fallen in love with her gentle sister Signe, who has been promised by the King to Knut, a brute. Knut kills Bengt. The King learns that Gudmund wasn't a villain at all and lets him marry Signe. Margit becomes a nun.
Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug languished in negativity until the original score was edited and published by Kalmus in 1987. The first, and only, recording,released in 2006, with Helmuth Froschauer conducting the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln,with Günther Lamprecht as speaker. He's wonderful, and acts so well with his voice that he makes the work come alive, in the tradition of German spoken theatre. In this version, prepared for performance by Christoph Schwandt, there is no dialogue. The cadences of spoken prose communicate, telling the story in a personal, believable way. There are only two solo songs, for Margit and Gudmund, the rest scored for chorus and orchestra. This "new" version of Das Fest auf Solhaug shows that it is much more than the set of three songs from the piece published in 1897. I've long loved the lyrical "Gesang Margits" for piano and soprano. Did Wolf know Grieg's Solvieg's Song (1876)? He despised copying, as true artists do, but perhaps it had a subliminal effect on his sensibilities. The orchestral version we hear here is something else, though.
Wolf set the scene for the play ambitiously. The orchestral prelude is grand, even panoramic, rising to a sudden crescendo then suddenly breaking off. On this recording there is descriptive narration, but not dialogue, a good idea since the emphasis here is the music. . Margit's song "Bergkönig ritt durch die Lande weit" is intoned heroically, heralded by trumpets and horns, taking up the challenging thrust of the Prelude. The voice lowers with menacing portent,as if Margrit were a character in The Ring. Perhaps Wolf did intuit the background to the tale,where an anonymous King pulls strings, trading his subjects off as if they were chattels. "Bei Sang und Speil sind wir vereint" sing the chorus: Solhaug is celebrating the anniversary of Margit's marriage to Bengt, but the mood is ferocious,more hunt than party,with large, pounding ostinato and the clash of cymbals,and trumpet calls. Now it is night, and the narrator tells us about Margit mixing poison. Gudmund sings , "Ich führ wohl ber Wasser" The mood remains truculent and upbeat, with a vigorous orchestral interlude, haunted by solo clarinet, perhaps symbolizing sinister intent. Swirling figures,interrupted by savage,sharp chords, then a madly merry dance. The horns blast, and morning comes. And so ends the Fest at Solhaug. Bengt's dead, Knut's in trouble with the King and Margit ends up in a convent. The choir sings in hushed tones, while the orchestra blasts forth in grand coda. Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug isn't half bad. We can imagine Wolf gnashing his teeth in exasperation. Perhaps we can feel his impatience. He'd rather be getting on with The Spanish Liederbook than writing mock medieval slush, which may come from the Vienna translation, which fortunately isn't easy to track down..
Which is more than can be said for Hans Pfitzner, whose own Drei Vorspeil zu Henrik Ibsens Das Fest auf Solhaug completes this disc. The first and last Vorspeils are ponderous, taking nearly 20 minutes to say very little. At least Hugo Wolf gives us a merry jape ! The middle Vorspeil, only 5 minutes, is livelier. Perhaps he's depicting a party of sorts. But Ibsen and Wolf had a pretty good idea that the festivities at Solhaug were bluff. Well played, though, even if the music isn't so good. I've been revisiting Das Fest auf Solhaug as another musical version is released, Wilhelm Stenhammer's Gillet på Solhaug). The world premiere recording of Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet pa Solhaug, a significant contribution to Swedish music. Read review here.