Thomas Hampson: Still a Fine Recitalist

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Webern, Zemlinsky, Strauss, Alma Mahler, Schoenberg: Thomas Hampson (baritone), Wolfram Rieger (piano). Wigmore Hall, London 14.9.2013. (JPr)

Gustav Mahler:
Scheiden und Meiden
Trost im Unglück
Aus! Aus!
Nicht wiedersehen!
Lied des Verfolgten im Turm
Der Schildwache Nachtlied
Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz

Four Rückert-Lieder:
Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft
Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder
Um Mitternacht
Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen

Lieder to texts by Richard Dehmel:
Anton Webern: Tief von fernAufblick
Alexander Zemlinsky: Entbietung
Richard Strauss: Befreit
Alma Mahler: Die stille Stadt
Arnold Schoenberg: Erwartung

Thomas Hampson, the distinguished American baritone, has probably forgotten more about Mahler – and the recital repertoire – than I have ever known … or am likely to know. He brought to the Wigmore a fascinating evening contextualising many of the composer’s early Des Knaben Wunderhorn-inspired songs with a number of vocal settings by five other composers who were associated with Mahler in some way. These examples showed what they could do with texts by Richard Dehmel and there was a single song from Richard Strauss, one by Alexander Zemlinsky and four by composers influenced by Zemlinsky – his pupil Alma Schindler who was soon to become Alma Mahler; his sometime pupil and brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg; and Schoenberg’s pupil Anton Webern. Hampson also concluded the formal part of the programme by exploring the impact of Friedrich Rückert on Mahler by singing four of the lieder from the familiar eponymous cycle.

The deserved popularity of Mahler’s symphonic compositions has obscured what I believe was his primary role in his musical life – that of a man of the theatre with a particular interest in the human voice. As I have commented many time before Mahler found no King Ludwig II (as Wagner did) to absolve him of all his financial worries and it was a case of ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to conduct I go!’ Writing symphonies was the way Mahler “relaxed” during his time off from his career as one of the most celebrated opera conductors of his time, whether in Budapest, Hamburg, Vienna or New York. Mahler conducted several significant world premières and significantly broadened the repertoire everywhere he went. During his life he never had sufficient time to compose the full-length operas I am certain he would have wanted to and, of course, he died too early for anyone to know what else he would have gone on to compose.

Thomas Hampson gave us only one example of Mahler’s first song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (his 1885 Songs of a Wayfarer) – the final song, ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (‘The two blue eyes’), a sadly reflective – quasi-Schubertian – song of lost love whose theme recurs in the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony. This cycle could be considered as Mahler’s Winterreise, full of youthful loving and losing, with all of the words supposedly written by the composer but owing a great deal to the literary style of Arnim and Brentano’s collection of folk poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The Youth’s Magic Horn’). Mahler composed several of these – the total number is disputed but is probably 23 – and many of them are also used in his symphonies: Hampson sang nine.

Finally there were four of Mahler’s mature vocal masterpieces, the Rückert-Lieder composed in 1901 when Mahler was at his happiest – while still plagued by doubts he could never entirely assuage. Nevertheless, overall they remain songs of great beauty and though more familiar in their orchestral version, can work well when accompanied by the piano: like many of Mahler’s lieder they can be performed by an alto or baritone. The tone veers from the almost Mendelssohnian ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’) to the darkness of ‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’), where the poet despairs about midnight and can find nothing to console him. Although the final words are optimistic, what we hear from the piano does not bring us any comfort.

As suggested above, Hampson is one of Mahler’s greatest current champions and I probably feel somewhat unworthy to criticise him. If anything he is probably too familiar with all the songs and his performances seemed to me just a little ‘safe’. Much of his voice retains the richness and sonority of former days but tends to become a little more fragile lower down or higher up than perhaps it once did. For me Hampson has always been a very high baritone with a timbre sometimes heard from a tenor. What is not in doubt is his wonderful eye for textual detail and his refined ability to shape an individual phrase or colour individual notes. The Wunderhorn songs, beginning with ‘Scheiden and Meiden’, mostly reflected the lives and loves, partings and deaths of lowly soldiers similar to those Mahler encountered in the garrison town in which he grew up. ‘Aus! Aus!’ is a dialogue between a young boy off to war in high spirits and his girlfriend who knows he will not return, Hampson’s operatic experience brought out the contrast between the boy’s braggadocio and the sadness of the girl. Also movingly sung was ‘Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz’, about another young soldier who deserted his regiment when he hears the Alpine horn from his homeland and must now face the firing squad. We hear the somewhat idyllic sound of the alpine calls from the piano juxtaposed with the cruel fate awaiting the soldier. Up until a harrowing account of ‘Revelge’ Hampson chose a more intimate – and less declamatory – approach to these songs. Here he narrated this march past of the ghosts of dead soldiers, led by the drummer boy, with the dramatic bite of a Verdi aria. However here, and elsewhere throughout the evening, there is a lot of irony in Mahler’s settings that he and his pianist seemed to miss and sometimes there was a level of intensity to some of his climaxes that was too much for the somewhat restricted space of the Wigmore Hall.      

The second half of the programme was more upbeat and romantic beginning with the Lieder to texts by Richard Dehmel. The ‘Wann kommst du?! – Meine Fackeln loh’n!’ (‘When will you come?! – My torches blaze!’) suggests Zemlinsky had some Tristan-like pretensions – Alma was probably Isolde to him – that Hampson and Rieger never fully explored: all of this set of songs needed greater interpretative depth to them in my opinion.

Finally there were four of the Rückert-Lieder and all credit to the always  expressive – but often understated – playing of the excellent Wolfram Rieger for clearly bringing out the buzzing of the bees I always like hearing in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ (‘Do not look into my songs!’), where the creation of great songs is compared with the insects’ instinctive production of their honeycombs. Hampson brought a potent Sprechgesang quality to ‘Um Mitternacht’ that wasn’t entirely successful for me.

The last song, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’), is perhaps the finest of all Mahler’s songs. The singer has withdrawn from the world to live only in his love and his art. It is very melancholic and the theme of this song is heard in the (in)famous Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. On the surface that movement is a love song to Alma but has the undercurrent that their happiness together might be short (as indeed it was) and so – like the song – could be seen as both happy and sad! Mahler’s complex psyche seems to want us to accept that in everything beautiful there is sorrow and vice versa. There is something very spiritual about this song that Hampson didn’t fully encompass and the ending where he employed his head voice didn’t work here as it had also not suited some other songs during the evening, most notably the concluding ‘Feldwacht’ of ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’.

The first of two encores was Mahler’s ‘Erinnerung’ (‘Memory’ c.1880) and after continuing enthusiastic applause brought him back to the platform Hampson told us we should be ‘a little careful: there are 28 more Mahler songs’. He announced this would soon be 27 as his final song was the composer’s ‘little postcard for Alma’ and so with an affectionate rendition of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ Hampson sent his audience away smiling.

Jim Pritchard