February 26, 2013
Thomas Hampson’s Glorious Richness
As if his masterly voice, elegant stage presence, striking good looks, and a peerless accompanist weren’t persuasive enough, baritone Thomas Hampson offered an eloquent tribute to the power of the art song near the end of his San Francisco Performances recital Tuesday at Herbst Theatre. “It is the blueprint of who we are as human beings,” he said. “Why everyone doesn’t embrace it, I don’t know.” Hampson would win the office of Lieder Ambassador, if such a thing existed, in a landslide.
In a program of three composers — Robert Schumann, Michael Hersch, and Samuel Barber, with an Aaron Copland folk song served as a sweet parting encore — Hampson spanned a range of human feeling and dramatic temperaments. There was tenderness and rage, longing and terror, borderline dissociation (in Hersch’s eerily fragmented line of Thomas Hardy poetry) and winsome humor (Barber’s gently surreal Green Lowland of Pianos). This was a blueprint realized in three dimensions and expertly shaded color.
Schumann’s Liederkreis, a cycle of 12 ardently expressive songs set to poems by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorf, opened the evening. Right away, with the superb Wolfram Rieger as his responsive partner at the piano, Hampson began opening up windows. A slight rubato and a few pensive syllables were enough to give “In der Fremde” (From the direction of home) the speaker’s inner ache. “Intermezzo” (Your blissful, wonderful image) got a more virile, woody tone, the stuff of amorous anticipation. “Waldgespräch” (Conversation in the wood) became a musical monodrama of sharply rendered voices, moods, and a supernatural shiver.
It’s easy to fall under the spell of Hampson’s lustrous, gorgeous sound. His tone has an ambered richness.It’s easy to fall under the spell of Hampson’s lustrous, gorgeous sound. His tone has an ambered richness, anchored in a seemingly effortless breath control and command of diction. You almost never hear him calculating or straining for an effect. That’s why a few wobbly notes and a certain parched timbre in a song about moonlight were so uncharacteristic.
Hampson’s prevailing smoothness is only a means to a more engaging end. The artistry comes in the fusion of his technical powers with the interpretive shaping and details. It was there in the slightly breathy phrasing that gave “Die Stille” (The silence) its airy shimmer. The treacherous depths of “Ich kann wohl manchmal singen” (Sometimes I can sing) registered in the decisive hard consonants. The expansive “Frühlingsnacht” (Above the gardens and across the sky) got a quietly ravishing sigh as the cycle reached its end.
All this is tactfully but decisively underscored by dramatic instincts honed in opera houses around the world. With a subtle tension in his frame, a far-off gaze, inner reserves summoned by closing his eyes, hands gracefully clasped or searching the air, Hampson gives the songs a fully felt presence, the music literally embodied.
Rieger became the focus of attention after intermission. Hersch, who was present in the audience for the world premiere of his Domicilium, gives the first of his four Hardy fragments to the pianist alone. It was left to the listener to divine how the plucked piano strings and short, chromatic germs of melody tracked Hardy’s landscape, but a kind of spare astringent mood developed.
The artistry comes in the fusion of his technical powers with the interpretive shaping and details.Hampson, donning eyeglasses and working from a score, summoned a variety of vocal effects in the three fragments that followed. A line about “griefs unspoken” hung drily over an arid piano ground, while the “whirlwind and fire” that followed were all but buried in an avalanche of pounding chords. The singer’s voice grew thin and desiccated, as it was reduced down to a kind of awestruck, toneless whisper at Nature’s “soft release.” The huffing short phrases of the final section — “Why did you give no hint that night?” — echoed the single-syllable thrum of Hardy’s line.
At once intense and scattered, impassioned and pointilistic, Domicilium left stray trace marks rather than a sustained impression. Hersch, whose substantial output includes symphonies, the monumental work The Vanishing Pavilions for solo piano and assorted works for solo strings, said in a program note, “I perhaps love writing for the voice more than any other instrument.” It was an apt remark for Domicilium, which seemed more a display of the voice’s technical capabilities than an exploration of its expressive range.
The seven Barber songs from various opus numbers were warmly and vividly done. “With Rue My Heart Is Laden” was suffused in a languid, summer’s eve nostalgia. “Night Wanderers” came alive in its sinister sibilants and erupting plosives. “Nocturne” verged on melodramatic overkill, until Hampson made it all pay off in a transfixing fortissimo climax. The closing “O Boundless, Boundless Evening” was as plush as anything he sang all night.
The artists returned, to mounting applause, for two encores and that verbal meditation on the joys of song. First came one more glowing Barber song (Sure on This Shining Night) and then a tune, as Hampson said, that we could all go home humming: Copland’s Long Time Ago. Lovely and familiar as it was, that melody was only one of many things to remember from this fine and memorable evening.
Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.
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