Hugo Wolf Academy Out from the Aficionado’s Corner

The pianist Katharina Landl and the mezzo soprano Diana Haller, winners of the International Competition for the Art of the Lied Stuttgart 2012.
The pianist Katharina Landl and the mezzo soprano Diana Haller, winners of the International Competition for the Art of the Lied Stuttgart 2012. | Photo (detail): Hugo-Wolf-Akademie / Leupold

For more than a century, Stuttgart has championed the composer Hugo Wolf and the lied performed with piano. This includes the Hugo Wolf Academy and its important International Competition for the Art of the Lied, which has been given now since 25 years.

The interest in Hugo Wolf began early in Stuttgart: still during the composer’s lifetime, in 1894, a circle formed there around his friend the lawyer Hugo Faißt. Four years later, a Hugo Wolf Society was founded in the city. But the composer did not live to see the Stuttgart Hugo Wolf Festival in 1906; mentally deranged, he died in Vienna in 1903. In his last years Wolf was placed in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum of Lower Austria at Alsergrund, in the “First Class” division. The necessary financial support for his accommodation also came from Stuttgart.

The young composer Hugo Wolf. The young composer Hugo Wolf. | Photo: Hugo-Wolf-Akademie Hugo Wolf’s “piano songs”, unique in their close joining of words and music, long remained a thing for aficionados and specialists, all the more so in the international scene, although in 1931 in New York lovers of this music established an International Hugo Wolf Society, whose founding members included famous names such as Thomas Mann, Thornton Wilder, Bruno Walter, Elena Gerhardt, Lotte Lehmann and Darius Milhaud. After the Second World War, however, when for thirty or forty years lied recitals found a wider audience, Wolf came to belong to the unchallenged canon of the great German lied composers of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms.

Instigated by Carl Orff and the Stuttgart music professor, composer and pianist Hermann Reutter, the early Stuttgart enthusiasm for Wolf revived in 1968. In addition to the founding of the Hugo Wolf Society, friends of Wolf’s music, with the aid of the state of Baden-Württemberg, bought a number of valuable documents and manuscripts concerning the composer, which are today kept at the Literature Archive in Marbach. The Hugo Wolf Society, which since 1990 bears the name of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie für Gesang, Dichtung, Liedkunst e.V. Stuttgart (i.e., International Hugo Wolf-Academy for Song, Poetry and the Art of the Lied, Stuttgart), now looks after not only Wolf’s legacy, but also promotes the art of the lied in general. And this with increasing success.

Competition for the art of the lied

Since 1987 the flagship for “Hugo”, as the Academy is casually called in Stuttgart, has been the International Competition for the Art of the Lied. Its special feature among all the many other song competitions around the world is the tender for lied duos. Here the judges do not vote on the possessor of a voice, but rather on an intelligent, artistically responsible interpretative partnership. In this way the Academy has taken into account Wolf’s conception of the lied: Wolf treated the singing voice and the piano part for the first time as equals, with the piano often even surpassing the voice. Thus the piano composition is transformed into a “sensualizing foreground, clearly meaningful and determining the mood”, according for example to the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died in 2012 in the age of 86, himself one of the most important interpreters of Wolf. The Stuttgart art song competition bears witness to this concept: the art of the lied arises from the collaboration of singer and pianist. Which is why, at Hugo, you will hardly ever hear the expression “lied accompanist”, which attributes a secondary, at most seconding role to the pianist. This approach clearly gives the Hugo Wolf Competition its own position in the music world.
The winning duo Katharina Landl and Diana Haller during the competition 2012, source: Youtube / Liedwettbewerb

In early October 2012, the competition took place for the eighth time since the founding year 1987 and awarded prize money in the amount of EUR 35,000. The high-ranking international jury, under the direction of the tenor Peter Schreier (who has also been the Chairman of the Artistic Advisory Board of the Hugo Wolf Academy for many years), included the soprano Gundula Janowitz and the pianists Graham Johnson and Wolfram Rieger. They were no easy evaluating panel. This year there was a clear winner among the 62 competing lied duos – the 25 year-old Croatian mezzo soprano Diana Haller and the Austrian pianist Katharina Landl received the first prize of 15,000 euros – but no second prize was awarded. Third place was shared by the Israeli duo of Hagar Sharvit (mezzo soprano) and Ammiel Bushakevitz, and the duo of Andreas Beinhauer (baritone) and Melania Inés Kluge.

Illustrious history

The soprano Christiane Oelze from Cologne, winner of the International Competition for the Art of the Lied Stuttgart 1987. The soprano Christiane Oelze from Cologne, winner of the International Competition for the Art of the Lied Stuttgart 1987. | Photo: Hugo-Wolf-Akademie / Nathalie Bothur Previously, the competition, whose prize winners include pianists and singers such as Oliver Widmer, Christiane Oelze, Eric Schneider, Matthias Goerne, Dietrich Henschel, Birgid Steinberger, Stephan Genz and Michael Nagy, took place every three years. Its 25th anniversary in 2012 was taken as the occasion to change this to a two year interval. Other new features: the young Managing Director Cornelia Weidner used contemporary means of media dissemination. There was a new online blog, and for the first time all the rounds of the competition were transmitted livestream on the internet. For Weidner it is clear: “This is in the air – there’s no way around it if you want to be up-to-date”. Still, she was surprised by the relatively high number of hits; during the five days of the competition there were 15,000 of them. A win-win situation: the participants have documentation of their appearances and, as Weidner reports, agency use the medium to discover new talent.

Another important date in the calendar of the Hugo Wolf Academy was March 17, 2013. On this day the Hugo Wolf Medal was awarded in the Stuttgart Opera House for the fourth time. The recipient this time was the mezzo soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, born in 1939 in Berlin; the baritone Olaf Bär held the laudation. The award, which has been previously given to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Christa Ludwig and Peter Schreier, is yet another effective public sign of the seriousness with which the some 450 members of the Stuttgart Hugo Wolf Society take the lied as a cultural possession.