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Erich Jacques Wolff, Michelangelo Cycle and Selected Songs, eight songs to Michelangelo poems, nine songs to Gottfried Keller poems, Op. 24, sixteen selected songs; Steven Kimbrough, baritone, Dalton Baldwin, piano; Arabesque Recordings Z6853, © 2013, TT 67:49, $9.99. Available only as a download: Amazon.com; iTunes.
Erich Jacques Wolff (1874-1913), who generally billed himself as Erich J. Wolff, is nearly completely unknown today, but in his time he was known internationally, primarily as a pianist, especially an accompanist, who occasionally composed songs for the singers with whom he was performing, many of whom, like Julia Culp, the "Dutch Nightingale," and Elena Gerhardt, are likewise not known today. Born in Vienna on December 3, 1874, he toured extensively, primarily in Europe and the Americas, and died in New York City while on tour with Gerhardt on March 19, 1913, after middle-ear surgery. He was a close friend and colleague of Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Zemlinsky. He married Helene Schwarz, dedicatee of his Op. 19 ("to H.S."), but they apparently had no children.
He composed a couple of operas, a ballet, a violin concerto, Op. 20 (1909), written for and dedicated to the Canadian prodigy, Kathleen Parlow (1890-1963), the first important female Canadian violinist, born in Calgary, Alberta (the booklet note puts the city in Ontario), some chamber works including a string quartet, a set of four piano pieces, Op. 7 (1905), Three Concert Études for Piano, Op. 16 (1908), and other short piano pieces, often to play as interludes between songs in vocal recitals, but it is his output of perhaps some 150+ songs that is the most impressive.
He published relatively few of his works during his lifetime, however, appearing to have only reached Op. 28. The most complete list of his works that I have located is here; original German titles are given. Generally the songs were published either individually or in sets grouped by the poet who authored the text, such as the Gottfried Keller set (1912) recorded here (except for No. 10, which is for a female voice). There was a set of six poems by Richard Dehmel (one of whose poems was the inspiration for Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht), Op. 8 (1907), one of four by Johann von Eichendorff, Op. 14 (1907), one of three by Goethe (all of which Schubert also set), Op. 15 (1907), another of seven by Cäsar Flaischlen, Op. 19 (1909), who was also a close friend, one of six from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Op. 9 (1907), and one of six by Jens Peter Jacobsen, Op. 26 (1913), from which sets some of the 16 assorted songs included on the disk, generally two per poet, are drawn.
After his death, a publisher issued in 1914 a Gesammelte Lieder aus dem Nachlass (Collected Songs from the Estate) in three volumes, which includes settings of additional texts by some of the same poets, and in which the songs are organized alphabetically by the first line of the poem. Some researchers have gone through those and also looked at the remaining original manuscripts and have assembled sets arranged by poet presumed projected for future publication, such as the Michelangelo cycle recorded here, which uses German translations by Heinrich Nelson of the poems by the Italian sculptor. Songs selected from this source are also offered here, generally likewise in pairs by poet. A few are singletons: one is a setting of "Es ist ein Rose entsprungen" ("Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming," tr. 31), as arranged by Michael Pretorius. It is preceded (tr. 30) by "Schönster Herr Jesus," the Silesian folk-tune turned "Crusader's Hymn," known to us as "Fairest Lord Jesus"; it is interesting to hear these variants of the songs. This one is preceded (tr. 29) in turn by another Christmas song: "Christkinderleins Wiegenlied" (Christ Child Lullaby), Op. 9/3, from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the second of a pair from that source (with the other drawn from the Nachlass), which results in an interesting and pleasant set.
Kimbrough (b. 1936), who had an extensive operatic career primarily in Europe, with a ten-year stint as a resident of the company in Bonn, although he also appeared on stages in the US and in Latin America, now lives in Durham. He is also a 1962 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and has long served the United Methodist Church in various capacities. His acquaintance with Wolff's work began when he included one of his songs in a recital as an undergraduate at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama, and he is now offering a good selection of them, which he planned as a tribute for the centennial of the composer's death, at the other end of his career. There is only one other recording currently on the market, a 2-CD set on the Thorofon label, recorded in the recital hall of the Steingraeber & Söhne (piano maker) Haus in Bayreuth and issued in 2014, sung by Rebecca Broberg, that includes the Op. 7 and Op. 16 piano works as well, and appears to duplicate only one song offered here. A previous 2009 CD by Broberg mentioned in this CD's booklet note appears now to be out of print, but also did not duplicate any of these songs.
The nature of the songs chosen is overwhelmingly serious, slow, and quiet in nature, even if there is diversity in the subject matter; none are in any way rhapsodic. This results in a somber general impression. Only those songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn are significant departures from this style, and they are delightful and welcome. Most of the songs are short and strophic, although not all of them have strict rhyme patterns, with a few repeating the first stanza or part of it at their end. Very few are through-composed: those of the Michelangelo cycle give that impression. Some of the songs have more extensive solo piano preludes and/or postludes, and some have such interludes between the verses. Indeed, the piano part sometimes seems more varied than the vocal one.
Kimbrough's performance is typical of the performance style of the period of composition, when a heavy use of vibrato was the norm; it isn't any more, so it seems excessive at times to my ears. His diction is good and, although I do not speak German, his accent sounds authentic. Because of the general nature of the majority of the songs chosen, there is not very much variety in his expression, making the whole seem like too much of the same thing, raising the question in my mind if this was the case of Wolff's output; the note in the booklet maintains that it has considerable variety. Baldwin, the dean of living American accompanists, has a long career behind him, too, and has been a regular partner of Kimbrough over the years. He is his usual discrete and expert collaborator here.
The 32-page accompanying booklet features a profile photo of the composer's head superimposed on a diagonally displayed portion of a piano keyboard on its attractive cover. The contents begin with notes by Peter P. Pachl in German on pages 2-9, with the translations into English by Kimbrough, that contain a couple strange errors (Michelangelo is a sculpture, for example, p. 11.), following on pages 9-15. They are essentially a blow-by-blow brief commentary on each of the songs in the recorded order and somewhat disjointed, making determination of composition and publication dates even more difficult to untangle on top of the lack of detailed information anywhere about Wolff's life; Wikipedia doesn't have an entry for him, and he appears in only one of the biographical reference books that I own, a brief entry in the Hughes/Deems Taylor Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Texts in German with side-by-side English translations, again by Kimbrough, occupy pages 16-30. Brief bios of Kimbrough and Baldwin, again with the German first, fill the rest of page 30 and page 31. A black and white photo of the duo, taken in the Sound Pure Studio in Durham, is found on page 32, the back cover. Recording was done in May 2012. Track listing with timings (TT is incorrect) are found on the outside of the tray card.
Twenty-three of the thirty-two songs recorded here are world première recordings. This is a worthy motive to make the once admired and popular works of Wolff better known, but the fact that it is not available as a physical CD undercuts the effort to my mind, since downloads do not come with any documentation, and most Americans do not speak or understand spoken or sung German.