To mark Richard Strauss’s (1864-1949) sesquicentennial, American baritone (living in Vienna) Thomas Hampson offered a finely crafted program of repertoire for which he is well-known entitled “Strauss and His World ” on Wednesday night in Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall. With pianist Wolfram Rieger partnering, the concert was sublime.
The first half of the recital comprised eight early songs selected from sets composed between 1885 and 1901 with texts ranging from a poem in Des Knaben Wunderhorn to obscurer works from Bierbaum, Mackay, von Liliencron, von Gilm zu Rosenegg, and van Schack: “Himmelsboten” [Messengers from Heaven], “Heimliche Aufforderung” [Secret Invitation], “Freundliche Vision” [A pleasant vision], “Traum durch die Dämmerung” [Dreaming through the Twilight], “Die Nacht” [Night], “Mein Herz ist stumm” [My heart is dumb], “Sehnsucht” [Longing], and “Morgen” [Tomorrow]. The closing two are performed relatively frequently. All are generally in the Romantic style, but with sufficient variety that Hampson could display his extraordinary expressive and interpretative skills, both vocal and gestural/physical. His renderings are invariably natural and convincing, without excess, and his diction is excellent, near-native in language professionals’ parlance.
The second half opened with a group of six songs, including one by Strauss setting text of Richard Dehmel, a poet well-liked by many German-language composers of the time; his “Verklärte Nacht” [Transfigured Night] inspired Schoenberg. From the turn of the century, the songs were Webern’s “Tief von fern” [Deep from far] and “Aufblick” [Looking Up], von Zemlinsky’s “Entbietung” [Invitation], Strauss’s “Befreit” [Freed], Alma Mahler’s “Die stille Stadt” [The silent city], and Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” [Anticipation], not to be confused with his same-titled one-act monodrama. These too are all generally in Romantic or late Romantic style, with hints of the atonality that was to come, and the Webern songs are not what one would expect from his other works.
The recital concluded with the reduction for voice and piano of four of Gustav Mahler’s five Rückert-Lieder for voice and orchestra, published in 1910 with two Wunderhorn settings under the title Sieben Lieder aus letzter zeit (Seven Songs of Latter Days). These, too, are from a set, not a cycle, so performance order does not need to follow publication order; Hampson arranged them thus: “Ich atmet’ einem linden Duft” [I breathed a gentle fragrance], “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” [Look not into my songs!], “Um Mitternacht” [At Midnight], and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” [I am lost to the world], making the recital end with a particularly apt text:
|Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel, Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet. Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied.||I am dead to the world’s tumult, And I rest in a quiet realm! I live alone in my heaven, In my love and in my song.|
But he was not alone: with him he had the entire audience in rapt attention, and silence. The applause was thunderous and the hall quickly on its feet. Following his return to the stage, Hampson rewarded us with the fifth of the Rückert-Lieder, “Liebst du um Schönheit” [If you love for beauty], and then Mahler’s well-known “Rheinlegendchen” [Little Rhine Legend] from the Wunderhorn songs. After acknowledging the audience’s applause, he stepped to the side, gestured toward Rieger, and himself applauded, which inspired yet another outburst from the audience, well-deserved. Indeed, during intermission all were commenting on Rieger’s supremely sensitive playing. He handled the appropriately smaller Steinway grand magnificently; rarely if ever have I heard one so beautifully controlled to make such lovely sounds. Rieger’s playing was concentrated, his touch delicate and precise without an iota of mud or excessive ring or inappropriate volume; his demeanor was discreet and unobtrusive, contributing to the perfection of the whole without drawing undue attention to himself. A phenomenal partner, he is clearly a mastersinger’s dream. After 20 songs performed to such perfection by this duo, I’d have gladly heard 20 more.