Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, Baker and Shirley-Quirk, Upshaw and Bär and now Damrau and Kaufmann. The charismatic German pair are the latest to try their hand at Wolf’s vivid musical vignettes, and they don’t disappoint. Recorded live in concert last year, their beautifully idiomatic delivery and subtle handling of the text is matched by their natural rapport – you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on a playful lovers’ tiff or intruding on something unspeakably intimate at times.

While Kaufmann may not have as many colours as Fischer-Dieskau (few did or do) and Damrau is not especially sumptuous of tone (her gift is a diamantine clarity), they navigate the twists and turns of Wolf’s chromatic, translucent style with aplomb. Though the soprano can be a touch too coy in some songs, she’s never anything less than compelling, and there’s always a sense of underlying insecurity or hurt in some of the snippier exchanges. Was soll der Zorn is a good example: Damrau’s heroine is wounded, yes, but she’s also high on the melodrama of it all, feeding off Wolf’s opulent writing for piano.

Happily, an open sincerity is at the soprano’s fingertips too. Mir ward gesagt is imbued with a desperate melancholy, while the Italianate Mein Liebster singt am Haus is throbbingly expressive. She’s also technically savvy, mastering the tricky harmonic changes of Wer rief dich den, and up for playing the flirt – see the cheeky teasing of Nein, junger Herr.

She’s in inspired partnership with Kaufmann, whose lyrical intensity and velvety warmth suits Wolf uncommonly well. The tenor’s superb dynamic control is also on full display here – every bit the romantic leading man, he offers up exquisite conversational tones until the listener is enveloped in the intimacy of his confessions. His soft-grained but fervent Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben is one such example, as is his deeply inward reading of Sterb’ ich. The sense of wonder he brings to Heb’ auf dein blondes Haupt is lovely, and if that all sounds a bit earnest, rest assured he can mug just as outrageously as Damrau. See the notorious Geselle, soll’n wir uns in Kutten hüllen for his memorable depiction of lecherous monks.

Finally, pianist Helmut Deutsch is no third wheel (in musical matters at least – check out the CD booklet for a giggle). His quicksilver and understated playing knowingly deflates the sometimes weighty bathos of these songs, and he has a magical ability to establish scenes with just a few notes. Like Damrau and Kaufmann, he is master of the finely observed detail. One for the collection.

Composer: Wolf
Composition: Italienisches Liederbuch
Performer: Diana Damrau s, Jonas Kaufmann t, Helmut Deutsch p
Catalogue Number: Erato 9029565866 (2CD)

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