I have now been writing for this site for over half a decade. While I have done my best to provide a broad account of repertoire, I have discovered that it has been very difficult to find vocalists, either living in San Francisco or performing as visitors, willing to prepare songs by Hugo Wolf for their recitals. I feel this creates a void for any serious listener who seeks to build up a rich historical context for understanding both what composers and performers do.
At today’s Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, soprano Shauna Fallihee, accompanied by pianist Miles Graber, made a major contribution to filling that void. She sang nine of the songs that Wolf composed for poems by Eduard Mörike. She sang these in sets of three, each roughly arranged around a common theme. She then alternated these sets with two sets of three songs composed by Claude Debussy, another composer whose contributions to the art song repertoire tend to be neglected. The result was a stimulating program that, hopefully, managed to remind at least a segment of the San Francisco audience of what they have been missing.
Wolf’s Mörike collection is a large one, a collection of 53 songs. For his part Mörike’s poems are mostly lyrics, delivered in straightforward language with almost no frivolous embellishment and often humorous. One might say that his poems explore the human condition from a “human” point of view (rather than that of the “elevated poet”). It is therefore no surprise that the collection of poems that Wolf selected should encompass a rather broad diversity of moods.
The three themes that Fallihee chose to explore in the three sections of her program were that melancholic sense of longing so perfectly captured by the German noun Sehnsucht, a serene acceptance of “natural” (including Divine) forces, and the recognition that Man is but a humble player on the stage ruled by those forces. Each of the songs she selected revealed Wolf’s adventurous, but always secure, sense of harmonic progression as the foundation for highly diverse rhetorical stances. Wolf was truly as expressive a poet with music as Mörike was with his words.
The first “Debussy interlude” consisted of the three songs composed from Pierre Louÿs’ collection of erotic poetry The Songs of Bilitis. These are highly erotic texts, which spoke powerfully for themselves through Fallihee’s clear delivery. The second “interlude” was the first set of Fêtes galantes (courtship party) song settings of poems by Paul Verlaine. These were the edgiest texts of the program, for which Fallihee admirably balanced the rich qualities of Debussy’s harmonies against Verlaine’s earthier texts.
Taken as a whole, this was one of the most intelligently conceived recital programs of the season; and every aspect of its execution lived up to the ambitious goals of its overall plan.