A lovely Handel and Mozart singer, Sophie Karthäuser here proves herself a natural in Lieder. In a discography dominated by tenors and (especially) baritones, her all-Wolf recital, centred on settings of Mörike and Goethe, is doubly welcome.
Karthäuser’s choice of songs, too, couldn’t be more apt. In her Mörike selection she mixes a handful of favourites with cherishable rarities such as the desolate ‘Agnes’, with its sadly tolling ostinato, and ‘Nixe Binsefuss’, a mischievous fairy scherzo that sounds like refracted Mendelssohn. With her fresh, limpid soprano and sharp feeling for character and nuance, she gives unfailing delight in the these settings, whether in her conspiratorial sense of fun in the children’s song ‘Mausfallensprüchlein’ and the two elfin vignettes ‘Nixe Binsefuss’ and ‘Elfenlied’ – the comedy of the latter deliciously timed – or her mingled simplicity and acuteness of observation in ‘Das verlassene Mägdelein’: the weary stressing of ‘muss’ near the opening, the new bleakness in the tone as she gazes into the fire (‘Ich schaue so darein’), the flare of accusation at ‘Plötzlich, da kommt es mir’. Karthäuser spins a seraphically floated line in the sublime ‘An eine Äolsharfe’, while at the other end of the spectrum the Hogarthian portrait of a loveless wedding, ‘Bei einer Trauung’, is sung with an unexaggerated sneer that the acerbic Wolf would surely have relished.
A measure of innocent simplicity is crucial in the Mignon songs, where Goethe’s waif becomes an etherealised Isolde; yet Karthäuser also musters deeper colourings and reserves of passion for ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ (its tempo fluctuations beautifully judged) and ‘Kennst du das Land’, with each successive climax finely graded. Elsewhere in the Goethe songs charm, lightness and grace prevail – not epithets normally associated with Wolf. The pair of sublimated folksongs, ‘Die Spröde’ and the valse triste ‘Die Bekehrte’, are specially delectable, the former blithely flirtatious from both singer and pianist, the latter deeply touching in its unforced pathos.
Throughout, Eugene Asti, recorded with proper prominence, is a model partner, commentator and animator (‘accompanist’ is an insult in Wolf): subtly fluid in rhythm, hyper-sensitive to the flux of Wolf’s liquescent harmonies and conjuring textures of gossamer delicacy in songs such as ‘Frühling über’s Jahr’, with its diaphonous bell chimes, and the two elfin sketches. The rare, early setting of Robert Reinick’s ‘Wiegenlied im Sommer’ – Wolf at his most Schumannesque – makes a beguiling envoi. In sum, a recital to delight all Wolf lovers, and an ideal entrée for those still to be converted to the peculiar richness and intensity of his art. (Richard Wigmore / Gramophone)