Hugo Wolf’s songs tend to be such self-sufficient worlds in miniature that one rarely sees them given the sort of high-concept treatment exemplified by this set, containing a 39-minute collection of audio-only Wolf songs setting poems by Eduard Mörike and then a 56-minute film built around them, both dominated by Dietrich Henschel. The songs are presented in orchestrated form, mostly by the composer, though two are by Stravinsky, whose somewhat aggressive tendencies with wind instruments give a new bite to Wolf’s dissonances.
Henschel hasn’t always been at his best with Wolf but he is here, always with a firm vocal line creating a clear path through the thickets of chromatic accompaniment, always with deeply felt attention to the words and any number of moments when you could swear he is channelling Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (no bad thing). Philippe Herreweghe’s accompaniment with the low-vibrato Royal Flemish Philharmonic maintains welcome transparency in potentially congested textures.
The Clara Pons film leaves a less penetrating impression: it’s a dialogue-free series of images, using Wolf as an emotional counterpoint on the soundtrack, showing a middle-aged country cleric (remember, Mörike was a priest) struggling with sexual desire for a young woman in his congregation. Not an unfamiliar story; but here it’s told with a kind of pastoral quietude, showing both parties with increasingly few clothes. As heavy-handed as the imagery can be, I was most struck by a scene with Henschel alone in the woods, sweaty and shirtless, attempting to build his own cross out of logs, only to have it collapse and tumble down the hill.