Safe to say, one of this year's best concerts

Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge were rapturous in a Hugo Wolf song cycle at the Kimmel.

Posted: February 08, 2013

Not all of Hugo Wolf's Spanisches Liederbuch (Spanish Songbook) portrays desperation, plus its aftermath and echoes. But most of the best songs do, exploding the emotional violence latent in the Paul Heyse and Emanuel Geibel poems so insistently that it's no wonder singers and audiences are intimidated by the density of the 44-song cycle.

So few were likely to feel shortchanged when Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge sang only 34 of the songs Tuesday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. Wolf's vocal lines aren't often lyrical, and the crowded, bass-heavy piano writing (performed, often luminously, by Julius Drake) rarely functions in predictable ways.

Yet Wolf-induced rapture (as opposed to fatigue) set in during the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert: As fearlessly as the composer investigated texts that range from the fraught circumstances of Christ's birth to shamelessly profane matters, the songs were rendered with a clarity that created a mosaiclike composite world - one as comprehensive as those that Mahler made in vast symphonic works decades later.

The performances easily withstood comparisons with the great Wolf singers of the past. Though Bostridge can be eccentric and mannered, Wolf gives singers more to think about than any other lied composer, and the tenor's contributions were so cleanly vocalized that the music never felt obscure or lugubrious.

Bostridge was a bit emotionally detached at first but later found great ranges of expression by adding, subtracting, slowing, and speeding his vibrato. Can any other current singer do that? In "Come, O Night," he colored his voice in ways that revealed the unfolding emotional vistas of the song, almost like a black-and-white photo gradually evolving into vivid color.

In contrast to Bostridge's stare-at-the-floor default mode, Kirchschlager delivered an elegant, extroverted portrait of the character singing the song, and through the intensity of her reactions also sketched the person the character was singing to. She hasn't the meticulous control of Bostridge but infuses Wolf's cross-sections of humanity with extra warmth and vitality. At this point in her artistic evolution, you drop everything to hear her.

This will no doubt be remembered as among the best concerts of the still-young year.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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