They won't teach you much about Hugo Wolf in a Music 101 course. Nor in Music 102, for that matter. The songs of this late-romantic Viennese composer, who lived from 1860 to 1903, are caviar for listeners with a long and serious immersion in vocal music, but Wolf, like caviar, is very much an acquired taste.
He took the traditional German art song and transformed it, moving beyond the catchy and reiterative melodies of Schubert and Schumann. We don't listen to Wolf for his "tunes" (although he wrote some wonderful ones); rather, with each new song, we immerse ourselves in a unique and complicated two or three minutes' worth of words, music, milieu and characterization, all of them inextricably intertwined -- a tiny opera.
On Sunday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, the Vocal Arts Society presented an evening of Wolf's "Morike Lieder," songs set to words by the German priest and lyric poet Eduard Morike. Wolf created them as though in an exhilarated fever, turning out 53 settings in less than a year. Roughly half of them were sung on Sunday by the baritone Stephan Genz and the soprano Joan Rodgers, in full partnership with the unfailingly alert and responsive pianist Roger Vignoles.
"To turn the pages of this collection is to enter Morike's world, but transmuted so magically into music that both text and music seem to be infused with the same light," Vignoles observed in liner notes he wrote for a CD of the complete "Morike Lieder."
Rodgers has a full, warm, highly expressive soprano voice, as well as the brains and subtlety to mine every nuance from whatever song she sings. Still, she never loses herself in those nuances -- no archly inflected stage whispers for Rodgers -- and there were moments (such as during "Verborgenheit") when her vocalizing took on a lush, near-instrumental quality that was ethereally lovely.
Genz, too, was a model of intelligence and attention to detail, at home both in Wolf's profound evocations of human loneliness ("Lebe wohl") and in his occasional moments of rambunctiousness (the "Abschied" concludes with the composer-poet kicking an importunate critic downstairs).
All in all, the four-way collaboration -- Wolf, Vignoles, Genz and Rodgers -- proved an immaculately blended one, and rewarded every bit of the fierce concentration it demanded from the audience.