Somehow, Wolf has never achieved mass appeal among enthusiasts for classical music. This is not some simple issue of unjust neglect like the fate of Max Bruch, it seems to be more a matter that Wolf is perceived as being for eggheads. His Lieder are certainly not neglected and they do not lack for admirers, but the admirers are intellectuals for the most part. A Wolf recital will bring them out in Hampstead or from the Hamptons, but otherwise the ordinary concertgoing public hear little by him except the Italian Serenade. The cd-collecting public do not seem in any hurry to put the matter right either, to judge by the sales rank of this most attractive disc, so it is no surprise that it is only now receiving its first review notice here, seven years after its latest reissue.
The main attraction for me here is the 3-part symphonic poem Penthesilea, as my collection already includes the Italian Serenade in both its orchestral and quartet arrangements and I even own Wolf's opera Der Corregidor, two instrumental excerpts from which are provided here. These extracts, the overture and the intermezzo from the second act, are very attractively done and could well steer music-lovers in the direction of the whole work if, of course, music-lovers would take an interest in the excerpts in the first place. Those who get that far will find a very fine account of the opera by the Berlin Radio S O under the baton of Gerd Albrecht with a cast including Fischer-Dieskau. I have myself offered a review of this set and I would recommend it to any who can find it except for the exorbitant asking prices that I am now seeing.
Penthesilea is the story of a queen of the Amazons who leads her troops into battle against Troy, falls in love with Achilles and suffers the annihilation of her soldiers. It strikes me as an exceptionally beautiful and original composition, not least because of its abrupt no-nonsense start that makes you think you must have missed a bit of introduction, something I presume not to be the case. Barenboim and his Paris players clearly believe in it, to judge by the exceptional beauty and sensitivity of the instrumental solos. Indeed the whole orchestral tone is in some ways exceptionally beautiful, but I experienced a strange suspicion that they were playing flat about 3 minutes from the start. I played the passage several times without being able to make up my mind, so I have to conclude that this suspicion is plain impossible and that the effect on my ears is something to do with Parisian intonation and/or the recording. (The performance is a live one from 1998 and so is that of the Serenade, the other pieces being from studio recordings in 1988.) Barenboim's handling of the work strikes me as admirable, distinguished by fluency and concentration, and with really affecting emotion in the lyric stretches. Why this work has not achieved greater popularity beats me. Beecham complained that Sibelius's Tapiola was nearly impossible to schedule. I can see what he meant, but the problem has been addressed and overcome, and that great work is now known by heart among concertgoers generally. I see no such issue with Penthesilea.
The performance of the Serenade is lively and engaging, with a splendid account of the viola solo by Ana Bela Chaves, and the Corregidor snippets and the two movements from abandoned symphonies (the latter works new to me) are just fine as well. To me, it all amounts to a most attractive disc, and not an expensive one either. I quite appreciate that I am in no position to preach at anyone about greater enthusiasm for Wolf. Besides a good collection of his songs I have owned his string quartet for many years, which is something I suppose, but both Der Corregidor and even Penthesilea are comparatively new to me. Better late than not at all, and to music lovers generally my message in this connexion is that of Miss Jean Brodie `Do as I say and not as I do.'