Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook at the the Ryedale Festival

Hugo Wolf was, after Schubert, the supreme composer of Lieder and, given the recent revival of interest in the genre led by the Leeds and Oxford Festivals, it is disappointing that his songs are not performed more often. Perhaps it is because, unlike other Lieder composers, his name is relatively unfamiliar to general concertgoers. All credit, then, to the Ryedale Festival, which under the inspired leadership of Christopher Glynn has fostered so much imaginative programming, to offer a concert devoted to Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch – or rather Italian Songbook, as it was sung in an English translation by Jeremy Sams.

That was not the only original feature to the performance which had also taken place earlier this year at the Barbican. Since the songs are shared between male and female voices, the work is often given by two singers. But here there were five: the girls’ take on Italian notions of love sung by Rowan Pierce (whose praises I sung in a recent blog – and Katie Bray and the mens’ ┬áby Roderick Williams, Nicky Spence and James Newby. More than that, the work was staged as a kind of Cosi fan tutte exploration of love by the two young couples and masterminded by Williams as the Don Alfonso figure. What might have been twee or embarrassing became, due to the astute direction of movement by Jeremy Sams and Louise Shephard and the acting skills of the singers, an experience both amusing and touching and one that was faithful to the original.

Add to this the superb singing of all concerned and Glynn’s masterly accompaniment and the pleasure of the evening was complete. Or almost; because I had one tiny reservation. Listening hard to catch as much as possible of the songs in translation while, at the same time, observing the physical interplay of the characters meant that I was unable to focus sufficiently on the humour and invention in Wolf’s writing for the piano. A small price to pay. At the end the audience at York’s Jack Lyons Concert Hall roared its approval.