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Ilse Wolf

Lieder singer and teacher whose soprano voice gave wings to musical phrasing

Laura Sarti

Monday September 27, 1999

The soprano Ilse Wolf, who has died aged 78, was one of the great Lieder singers of her generation. She excelled above all in songs by Schubert, which she took to audiences throughout Britain, her adopted country.

Born and brought up in Dueren, near Aachen in the Rhineland, she experienced the rising tide of Nazi persecution until compelled to leave in 1939 on one of the "children's transports": the parents she left behind disappeared in the flames of the Holocaust. She was brought to this country, briefly interned, then did war work in a factory.

By natural gift, upbringing and aspiration, Ilse was a singer through and through. She knew instinctively how words and music could be brought into perfect union: the understanding of her native language and poetry was bred in her bones, so that her interpretation of Lieder, voiced in the purest, most limpid sound, demonstrated not only crystalline articulation, but also the deepest meaning and emotion inherent in text and music.

For many years she gave Lieder recitals all over Britain: of her many unsurpassed performances, her rendition of The Shepherd on the Rock, Schubert's song with clarinet as well as piano, was outstanding. For many years she broadcast regularly on the BBC third programme, with such fine accompanists as Paul Hamburger and Martin Isepp; with the latter, she made a commercial recording of Schubert.

In oratorio, she was a radiant performer of Bach and Mozart, bringing to their music an awareness of style based on a strong rhythmic pulse which animated her soaring, joyous soprano and gave wings to musical phrasing. From 1956 to 1958, she sang in some of the Chelsea Opera Group's first performances, conducted by the young Colin Davis. She took a number of Mozart roles, and was particularly memorable as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.

However, there was an other side to her; a wonderful ability to make connections between musicians she worked with and admired and young singers whom she wished to encourage. Her own studies had begun with Emmy Heim, a notable Austrian Lieder singer, and then with Helene Isepp, who was to become one of this country's most influential teachers. In time, Ilse became Helene Isepp's assistant, and eventually an increasing number of pupils came to her independently as her own reputation in this field grew. She was then asked to teach at the Royal Academy, and in 1980 was made an honorary member.

For many years she had a close connection with Morley College, where she worked with Michael Tippett and Walter Bergmann, singing in many of the concerts they put on. In later years she taught in Lieder and repertoire classes, her practical vocal demonstrations displaying a limpid quality and charm to the last.

Ilse Wolf will be remembered by the many who basked in her spontaneous warmth and humour, and by the many pupils and fellow musicians who were inspired by her dedication and single-minded love for the art she so graciously adorned.

She did not marry, and leaves a niece, Elisabeth.

Ilse Wolf, singer and teacher, born June 7, 1921; died September 6, 1999

     

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