Baritone Thomas Hampson reveals the glories of 19th century lieder
For the many classical music aficionados who cut their teeth on the sublime long-playing records of the 1950’s and 60’s, the announcement of an evening highlighting the lieder of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler brought vivid auditory memories to mind.
For this reviewer in a candle-lit college dormitory room in 1960, it was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings with the pianist Gerald Moore that inscribed in his brain a template of what they were supposed to sound like. The master’s heartfelt emotions, moment-to-moment focus on the musical and textual meaning of the phrase, and that voice, never losing its depth and beauty whatever the demands of volume and extremes of range.
Attending a concert they gave in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall twenty years later if anything strengthened these impressions. The elegance, commanding physical presence, economy of gesture and expression, and resplendent artistic power reinforced the frame, and in the intervening years to the present, only Matthias Goerne’s 2010 recital approached the DFD standard.
Until July 16, 2014, that is, when Thomas Hampson presented to a full house in Ozawa Hall a gorgeous, profound, and intensely engaging reinterpretation of these lieder. Surely, perhaps unavoidably, there were resonances to Fischer-Dieskau in articulation, laser focus on the meaning of every word, magnetic stage presence and tessitura. An ingenuousness, freshness, curiosity, and daring, however, suffused this concert, projecting a vivid sense of Hampson’s originality – rooted in tradition, to be sure – but at the same time, conjuring an atmosphere of eager anticipation. What marvels and revelations were coming next?
Eight Strauss songs comprised the first half of the concert. According to the excellent program notes by Jay Goodwin, they were written over a span of 80 (80!) years. They were presented in this order:
- “Himmelsboten” (Messengers from Heaven)
- “Heimliche Aufforderung” (Secret Invitation)
- “Freundliche Vision” (A pleasant vision)(the only song composed in the 20th century)
- “Traum durch die Dämmerung” (Dreaming through the Twilight)
- “Die Nacht” (Night)
- “Mein Herz ist stumm” (My heart is dumb)
- “Sehnsucht” (Longing)
- “Morgen” (Tomorrow morning)
In “Messengers from Heaven,” (1896)(Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or “The Boy’s Magic Horn,” a popular collection of old German folk songs), a man beckons the sun to inform his sleeping lover of his affections. Strauss’s arching phrases “unlock the clouds,” even as Eros rears his delightful head. After high notes that emphasize special, sizzling adjectives: “her bare throat,” her clear eyes,” the song ends with two languorous words that take forever to express: “her round breasts.” (You can tell when a Tanglewood audience is paying serious attention by when they laugh.) Hampson resisted the easy wink of the eye and deadpanned the line, focusing all through the piece on bringing out the beauty of Strauss’s exquisite harmonies, so apposite to the surging emotions of romantic love.
“Secret Invitation,” (1894)(poem by John Mackay), gave Hampson a further opportunity to display his emotional and cognitive intelligence. Sung boldly at the outset, over waves of pedaled arpeggios, he emphasized the harmonic and dynamic nuances that Strauss packed into a story of a couple’s enjoying – and happily leaving – a drunken feast.
A startling accent on the “Nein” at the outset of a key passage in the story, grabbed one’s attention. “No, lift the twinkling cup, and let them be happy at their noisy meal.” And relishing the stanza that followed, with understated intensity, he foretold the ending of the song:
“But when you’ve savored the meal, your thirst quenched, then quit the loud gathering’s joyful fest, and wander out into the garden to the rosebush. There shall I await you, as often of old.
“And ere you know it shall I sink upon your breast, and drink your kisses, as so often before, and twine the rose’s splendor into your hair. Oh come, you wondrous, longed-for night!”
Remember that unexpected harmony that lifts you off your chair whenever you listen to or watch the “Presentation of the Rose” scene in Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier,” the collision of chords that adds musical glitter to the stage setting of champagne crystal and starlight? At the very end of this song, there’s a lovely semblance. For sure, it’s intended to adorn the rose-filled text of Mackay’s poem. Sounding on the words “longed-for night,” Strauss overlays a B major, then an A major over the dominant D seventh chord before concluding the cadence to the tonic, G. Magical! Do try this at home!
Emphasizing this affecting phrase and harmony ever so graciously was Wolfram Rieger, the pianist – one really shouldn’t call him an “accompanist” in an evening like this – himself an exceedingly thoughtful and responsive partner. His own singing tone, and astoundingly calibrated tempi and dynamics lent an extra dimension of resonance to the emotions signaled by the composers, the poets and Hampson himself. Rieger’s introductions, solo passages, and codas were marvels of understated anticipation, colloquy, and resolution, with each judiciously pressed note and phrase pulling at the heartstrings.
If you scroll down to the links below, you’ll be able to hear what I mean by comparing his treatment of the Mahler’s “Ruckert Lieder” with Daniel Barenboim’s, Leonard Bernstein’s, and Gerald Moore’s in collaboration, respectively, in one of Fischer-Dieskau’s and in one Christa Ludwig’s performances.
“A Pleasant Vision” and “Dreaming through the Twilight” (1901 and 1895)(poems by Julius Bierbaum) evoked verdant meadowlands in an atmosphere shifting from broad daylight to the “grey twilight, deep into bushes of jasmine, and the associated experiences of walking “with one who loves me, My heart at peace, into the coolness of this white house, into the peace, Brimming with beauty, that awaits our coming,” and being “drawn by a faint, velvet thread through the grey twilight to the land of love, into a blue, mild light.” Here, Hampson’s impressive capacity to summon evanescent moods was amply demonstrated in quiet inflections and emphases on the few verbs that signaled action and the surprising metaphors that signaled transcendent love (“Statues of gods gleaming from the foliage”).
The musical textures brimmed with lush harmonies, for example, a stunning, stepwise progression beneath the same text begun above, “Through the grey twilight to the land of love” that continues, “I do not walk quickly, I do not hurry.”
Try this chord progression at home, too! C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E flat diminished, F, and wonder, as I did, whether Richard Rodgers had this Strauss song in mind when he composed the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” in his 1945 musical, “Carousel,” with words by Oscar Hammerstein.
A dramatic compositional device begins the song, “My Heart is Dumb, My Heart is Cold,”(1888)(poem by Count von Schack). Each syllable is uttered on the same C, becoming a pedal point that pushes this verse and its sad associated harmonies into a glacial emotional landscape:
“My heart is dumb, my heart is cold, frozen is the winter’s ice; sometimes, but only in its depths, it seethes, trembles, and stirs quietly.”
Hampson uttered this softly, with subtle emphases at the height of phrases that alluded to a more optimistic past (“And the sound of horns, carried from leaf to leaf . . . echoes from the gulches faintly in my ears, like a shout from happier days”). The C’s recur before the song’s end, underpinning the text, “the echo of a dying sound fades into the distance, and once again everything is frozen.” They become C sevenths in an accelerating tempo that speeds a weighty F minor ending. Hope is no more in this fellow’s dismal world.
“Longing” (1896)(poem by Detlev von Liliencron) evoked a path walked “every day, and always alone.” Were he ever to meet his “maiden” again, “like a sun to me in heavy night,” he tells her, “I’d quickly pull your sweet heart to me and softly whisper: I love you.” On this phrase, Hampson’s tone was velvety and deeply resonant, yet voiced exquisitely softly.
“Tomorrow Morning,” (or “Morning,”1894, poem by John McKay) began with a quiet introduction that Rieger articulated carefully and slowly, balancing interweaving, rising, rising strands of melody over sublime arpeggios. Hampton’s treatment of this paean to lovers’ reunion breathed a sense of relief and settling in, amplifying gently the rhythms of the text, and with a sense of drama, slowly approached the C seventh dominant chord, his last, unresolved, cadence.
“And to the shore, the wide shore with blue waves, we will descend quietly and slowly; we will look mutely into each others’ eyes and the silence of happiness will settle upon us. . .”
It fell to Rieger to bring the song, and the set, to close, with a thoughtful, leisurely, reading of its coda, sweetly closing the harmonic uncertainty in the vocal line with a warm F major chord.
After the intermission, a brief transit through the poems of Richard Dehmel set to music by Strauss contemporaries Anton Webern, Alexander Von Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Arnold Schonberg, and Strauss himself gave a lively and engaging sense of harmonic and textural explorations that paved the way to the music of the 20th century.
The five songs (all of which were presented elegantly and assuredly by Hampson and Rieger), demonstrated the foundational elements of their composers’ oeuvres:
Webern’s stunning excursions in “Looking Up” (1903) from major to minor tonalities and from familiar-sounding lines and intervals to sudden, spiky dissonances;
Strauss’s employing familiar musical tropes and adventurous harmonic variations in “Freed” (1898), laying down D minor introductory arpeggios straight out of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” before the text, “You will not weep. Gently, gently you will smile,” yielding shortly to Hampson’s glorious projection of a fine crescendo on the words, “O happiness” (“o Gluck!”), to the luscious cadence, E seventh G seventh C;
Alma Mahler’s (Gustav’s wife’s) lovely and straightforward “The Silent City” (1901), describing brilliantly in descending melodies and confident, polychromatic counterpoint the introductory text, “A town lies in the valley; a pale day fades” and lending emphasis to the eerie final stanza through smooth and subtle harmonies and the adroit use of a well placed, F sharp-to-E appoggiatura to adorn the word “Kindermund” (“the mouth of a child”):
“But as the traveller felt fear, a tiny light shone below, And through smoke and mist, a soft song of praise began. From the mouth of a child.”
Arnold Schonberg’s “Anticipation” (1899) was in the same romantic, pre-12-tone band of composition as “Transfigured Night” and “Gurrelieder.” To the text, “A woman’s pale hand beckons him from the red villa beside the dead oak,” Hampson sung poignantly and intensely, giving voice to the uncertainty of what might follow. Here was real musical excitement, melding passionate text, superb vocalizing, and splendid pianism. Rieger treated the coda as if he were translating to the keyboard the words of the third stanza, “Three opals glint; red and green gleams from the pale gems and submerges,” building sparkling arpeggios that illuminated the F ninth, G, F harmonies that descended to silence.
Mahler’s lieder on Poems of Friedrich Ruckert (1860 to 1911) may be standards in the vocal literature, but Hampson and Rieger gave them new meaning. “I Breathed a Gentle Fragrance” began with Hampson’s stunning legato transit from an exquisite high G through E flat and C down to Bb on the last two words of the title. Shades of Franz Schubert! Single-note piano melodies complemented the vocal lines, expanding to a G seventh chord, over which Hampson delicately expressed “How lovely was the fragrance of linden.” Then came changing Mahlerian tonalities in C, then F, underpinning the text “That twig of linden you broke off so gently.” More single notes eased into a sweet, final cadence. The effect was totally woodsy, a rhapsody to love in a sylvan paradise, finely sung and beautifully played.
“At Midnight” began in A minor with a touching E F E melody. It is deservedly a frequently-performed piece, including such gems as a gorgeous piano introduction to the second stanza that includes echoes of the first, dramatic dynamics, such as the decrescendo that concludes the second and the huge buildup to a high fortissimo A at the end of the third to the text, “Lord! Over death and life You keep watch at midnight!” Hampson’s phrasing in the two final stanzas was magnificent, with spellbinding attention to the singer’s heart (“One single pulse of agony flared up at midnight”), to a struggle of Mankind to address the Lord’s suffering (“At midnight I fought the battle of Mankind; of your suffering; I could not decide it with my strength at midnight.”
This powerful song merits repeated listening. Here are some splendid examples to enjoy and compare:
Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger’s.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Leonard Bernstein’s.
Christa Ludwig and Gerald Moore’s
Do you not agree that Hampson and Rieger are up there in the firmament of lieder singing?
Music like this, as lovely as it sounds and looks in audio and video, deserves to be listened to in real time, live, if and when one can. Your reviewer’s words, nor any critic’s for that matter, cannot sufficiently describe the intimate sharing of a lieder concert, much less an extraordinary one like this.
Sounds like those with which Hampson and Rieger enthralled the Ozawa Hall audience can neither be bottled nor precisely characterized. Recordings are fine, although in this day of the portable digital device they are inevitably compressed, as they are on YouTube. Anyone who was there the night of this concert can enjoy Hampson and Rieger again in the above, but they would almost surely agree that isn’t nearly a similar experience. In a word, we were blessed to be there and grateful for what we were given.