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October 5 1999 

OBITUARIES

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Ilse Wolf had a warm, clear voice and
a
"legato like satin"

ILSE WOLF

 

Ilse Wolf, singer and teacher, died on September 6 aged 78. She was born in Düren, Germany, on June 7 1921.

ILSE WOLF was one of the many German and Austrian artists who fled from the Nazis in the late 1930s and enriched the cultural life of their adopted countries. Her many broadcasts and concerts of Lieder and oratorio in the 1950s and 1960s, and her teaching at a number of London institutions left an indelible impression on many.

She always said that her life was a succession of coincidences. It was a stranger whose luggage she had carried to a train who asked why she was still in Germany when so many children had been transported to safety. On learning that Ilse was 17 and ineligible to leave unless invited as a domestic, the woman immediately contacted a nephew in London, who obtained a visa within a few days. The man from the Jewish organisation who met the girl when she arrived at Victoria station asked her what she was going to do. "Oh, I have to sing," she said. He threw up his hands: "War's started and she has to sing!"

Soon after her arrival, she was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. In 1941 she was released and returned to London, where she became an air-raid warden, and took every opportunity to sing, in factories and private homes. She also attended Morley College, joining Michael Tippett's choir and singing Bach and Schütz in ensemble.

In 1943, while doing domestic work at a finishing school in Pont Street, she met the singing teacher Emmy Heim, who recognised her talent and gave her lessons. When Heim left for Canada in 1947, she introduced Ilse to Helene Isepp, a former pupil, whose career in Vienna had been halted by the war.

Helene Isepp gave her a wonderfully free technique and nurtured her love and understanding of the German Lied, as well as the music of Bach. She was soon assisting Isepp with her more recent students. Helene Isepp's pianist son, Martin, was often called upstairs to accompany his mother's pupils, which led later to a close collaboration with Ilse Wolf in recital.

Wolf had begun to give small concerts by 1945, and some BBC recitals, many accompanied by Ernest Lush or Paul Hamburger. She was also in demand for oratorio, and it was while singing the soprano part in Haydn's "Nelson" Mass at York Minster in 1953 that she met Janet Baker, who had stepped from the ranks of the Leeds Philharmonic Choir to sing the contralto part. Urged on by Wolf and the conductor Allan Wicks, Baker came to London to study with Helene Isepp and commence her career.

Although Wolf joined the Chelsea Opera Group in its early days under Colin Davis and sang the Mozart roles enchantingly, she never felt at home on the operatic stage; it was as a Lieder and oratorio singer that she made her reputation at home and abroad. Her numerous broadcasts for the BBC assured her of a well-attended London debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in 1955, the Times reviewer noting her "warm, clear voice, admirable enunciation and smooth method of production which affords her a legato like satin". This was the first of many Wigmore concerts with Martin Isepp, and they performed throughout the British Isles, as well as in Europe.

Her first return to Germany in 1963 (under the auspices of the British Council) to sing in Cologne, Berlin and Frankfurt was agony for her, but a critical success. In 1969, she was the first person to sing Lieder at a Promenade concert, opening the programme on September 1 with four Schubert songs. Her only recital record, issued by Unicorn, appeared later that year.

Highlights of her career in oratorio included singing Bach with Casals at the Prades Festival, and Mahler with Barbirolli. James Gaddarn, conductor of the London Orpheus Choir and Orchestra, remembers the instant rapport at their first meeting in 1969 to rehearse for a BBC recording of Bach cantatas; he recalls their Monteverdi Vespers at Westminster Abbey, the joy and poignancy of her arias in the St John Passion, her instrumental approach to the duets of the B Minor Mass, and her soaring rendition of Strauss's Four Last Songs followed by the Brahms Requiem. Her recordings included Bach's Magnificat, Monteverdi madrigals and Handel's Te Deum.

None of Wolf's immediate family survived the Holocaust, so Emmy Heim and Helene Isepp became mother figures as well as teachers to this spirited, yet deeply vulnerable, girl. It was those qualities which endeared her to audiences, who warmed to her direct simplicity, youthful timbre and limpid tone, so well suited to Schubert and Schumann. Her extreme nervousness may have limited her career to some extent, but passing on what she knew was as important to her as performing, and a necessary corrective.

Students in her classes at the RAM, Trinity College and, above all, Morley College, felt her personal care for them as well as her professional expertise. A particular pleasure of her later years, was making contact with her second cousin from Chicago, Elisabeth Wolf-Morrall and her young family, now resident in London.

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 Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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