Thomas Hampson

Schumann: Kerner Lieder, Dichterliebe

Wigmore Hall, 15 December 2007 5 stars

Thomas HampsonThomas Hampson recorded Schumann's Kerner Lieder Op. 35 in December 1989 with Geoffrey Parsons. It was immediately apparent when he started to sing them at this concert, eighteen years later, that his voice has deepened in colour, but lost none of its flexibility. After an absence of five years from London's Wigmore Hall, it was wonderful to have him back, sounding greater than ever.

He opened the first song, 'Lust der Sturmnacht', with authority and generosity of voice, but also with incredible precision in ornamented lines such as 'All der golden Himmelsschimmer'. The following song, 'Stirb, Lieb' und Freud'!' presents different challenges, calling for intimacy, flawless legato and some pianissimo singing at an absolutely murderous tessitura. Hampson delivered the end of the second verse, which hovers around a baritone's top G, in a mesmerisingly floated voice, which was at times pure falsetto, blended seamlessly into his fundamental voice as the phrases descended. It was this moment more than any other in the evening that showed him to be more in command of his instrument than most other singers today. Make no mistake, however - he never gives the impression he is trying to impress you. Hampson's priority is always to give the best possible interpretation of the song at hand, and he draws on his incredible technical prowess to this end alone.

'Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend' was an incredible portrayal of wistfulness, the beautiful melody unfurling in Hampson's voice with the most remarkable, buoyant legato. He was really probing in the following song, 'Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes', getting across all the innig, moonlight intimacy but expanding into stentorian exultation for the fourth verse as he explored the nature of friendship which this song deals with.

Each of the twelve songs from this group received a more or less ideal performance, and there were moments from each which were truly breathtaking. But it was 'Stille Tränen', one of Schumann's most popular songs, which was the real highlight for me. Performed attacca after the preceding song, Hampson soared through it effortlessly, but with heat-breaking emotion, bringing the audience to the edge of their seats. He somehow achieved a serenity that made it seem as if the whole song was performed in one breath, and yet he fully portrayed the complex despair of the text, which at once acknowledges and accepts a rather depressive view of the human condition.

The pianist, Wolfram Rieger, gave first rate support to Hampson all through the Kernerlieder, but he really came into his own in the second half, where they performed an original version of Dichterliebe. This was entirely due to the different nature of the Dichterliebe songs, which place voice and piano on a more equal footing, and not because there was anything wanting in his playing in the first half.

The opening of the first song delineated the shift in the parameters of their relationship immediately, with Rieger highlighting all the different voices in the complex texture with a limpid tone that seemed to envelop the ear from all directions, aided by the superb acoustic of the Wigmore Hall. A similar affect was achieved in the opening and closing of the exquisite song 'Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen', but here there was more desolation and tragedy in the piano timbre, Rieger sensitively matching his sound to the 'übergroßes Weh' in the text. There was some delightfully pronounced rubato in 'Das ist eign Flöten und Geigen' and the postlude to 'Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen' was startlingly beautiful.

Aside from the presence of an extra four songs, the differences between this version of Dichterliebe and the generally accepted, published version are slight, and really do just sound like they come down to a question of editing. For instance, there was no appoggiatura on 'herzen' or 'aufgeangen' in the first song. The penultimate line of the poem in the fourth song, 'Doch wenn du sprichst: Ich liebe dich!', was condensed to a bar and a half, rather than the two bars it takes in the more familiar version. But the four additional songs were very welcome inclusions. In terms of the text, they increase the specificity of the character, humanizing him rather, and injecting more raw passion amongst all the romantic imagery. Musically, they have clear motivic links with the rest of the cycle, and actually make the connections between songs more obvious. The sixteenth song, 'Mein Wagen rollet langsam', contains melodic elements of the prelude to the first song, but also foreshadows the rhythm of the song which follows, 'Ich hab' in Traum geweinet', emphasising the subtle, over-arching coherence present in the cycle.

Hampson was no less impressive in this part of the programme than he had been in the Kernerlieder. From the aggressive ardour of 'Lehn deine Wang' an meine Wang' to the risky but successful pianissimo of 'Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen', he gave a masterful performance which embraced a huge dynamic range and expressive palette. There was vocal production of rare beauty in 'Ich will meine Seele tauchen' but also an almost shouted last line of 'Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen', appropriate for expressing the distraught frustration in the poem.

Following tumultuous applause from the normally genteel Wigmore Hall audience, Hampson and Rieger gave one encore, Schumann's much loved song 'Du bist wie eine Blume'. I think we would have kept them going all night if we possibly could have, but Hampson addressed the audience, saying 'I am getting to the age where it is wise to leave the audience wanting more'. He certainly achieved his objective.

By John Woods