Thomas Hampson/Wolfram Rieger - Wigmore Hall, 15 December 2007
Judging by the photos, it seems that Thomas Hampson wears the same suit for all his recitals. But then, he does so few concerts that it would be an extravagance to own any more. I felt duly privileged to be present at his first Wigmore Hall appearance for five years. And with something of a Schumann drought recently in London (no doubt in response to last year's 150th anniversary overload) it was a pleasure to anticipate his all-Schumann programme, which began with the Kerner Lieder.
Uneven intonation and a gruff delivery diminished the impact of the opening Lust der Sturmnacht. I wondered if the celebrated technician had a cold. But I guess it must have been just a public warm-up, because he was back on top with the next song, Stirb, Lieb' und Freud'! Hampson negotiated its tricky high-lying passage, the prayer of a young girl, in solemn and faultless falsetto, to breathtaking effect.
There is a moment at which you know if a recital is going to be a very special one, and that was it. Hampson has lived with these songs for a long time. Now it is as if he inhabits them. His voice has lost some elasticity and crispness of contour over the years, but it has gained in richness and colour. There is an underlying frailty, a vulnerability which Hampson could call up at will, but also an elemental power, operatically-scaled. Hampson deployed this fearlessly, notably in Wanderlied, but never simply for effect. Vocal and physical gestures never outsized the performance space. Any accusations of 'ham' would have been very wide of the mark. He didn't display these songs, he experienced them, from line to line, each word spun out afresh. And incidentally, a few of those words and notes weren't exactly as I recalled them, but such was the conviction of Hampson's performance, I couldn't say whether he was using an obscure edition, or was merely fudging with the most consummate of skill.
In Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes, the contemplation of the wine glass of a departed friend, Hampson spun the elegiac and celebratory elements together into a warmly reflective whole. The trio of Stille Liebe, Frage and Stille Tränen was the high point of the first half, the final verse's sustained Schmerz ripping open like a fresh wound. Even the inveterate coughers at the back of the hall could do nothing but hold their breath after that one.
For the second half, Hampson presented a Dichterliebe with a difference. This was Schumann's original version, complete with an additional four songs (eventually published separately) to the final sixteen, and a few very minor musical differences. Although the existence of this original twenty song version has long been known, the shorter version is generally held to be the one Schumann himself considered definitive. Hampson's programme notes presented compelling reasons to consider otherwise. As did his performance, into which the extra songs slipped seamlessly.
He also proved that this is not just a young man's song cycle. Hampson could conjure up the wistful beauty of Ich will meine Seele tauchen with lightness and freshness. And Heine's irony, so often conveyed as youthful petulance, was from Hampson a bitter snarl of frightening depth in Ich grolle nicht and Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen. By the time we got to the final Die alten, bösen Lieder, the despair was absolute, no empty posturing. Wolfram Rieger was no less than an equal partner throughout, responding with the utmost sensitivity to Hampson, resisting any urge to grandstand the postludes. The attentive creation of every single note made the whole cycle utterly engrossing from start to finish, with scarcely a cough emanating from the transfixed audience.
Ear-shattering applause could only squeeze one encore out of them, a charming Du bist wie eine Blume. As Hampson explained afterwards (in a bizarre euratlantic accent, like a verrry posh German who's watched too many Hollywood movies), he's getting to the age when it's wise to leave the audience wanting more. More is most definitely wanted, though when he'll be coming back to London is up in the air. As he makes clear in an interesting interview in this month's Opera News, his intention is that his future now lies mainly in the US.