Melbourne Recital Centre
May 31, 2018

Thomas Hampson is a very rare bird indeed: a singer who brings all the musical and emotional power of opera to the world of the art song. During this attractively varied program at the start of his first-ever Australian tour, there was never any doubt that everything Hampson sang, he sang from the heart. His extraordinarily expressive face confirmed that here was a supremely musical communicator who totally inhabited the world of each song.

Thomas HampsonThomas Hampson. Photograph © supplied

Presenting his impressive credentials in the area of lieder, Hampson began by plunging himself and the audience into the psychological depths of the six Heine settings from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Hampson tellingly brought out the vein of painful self-realisation that runs through these settings. The proud but unhappy Atlas was a memorable curtain-raiser, matched in intensity by the spectral Doppelgänger that ended the bracket. In between came a carefully shaded exploration of the many moods of lost love; the softer outpourings of Ihr Bild and Das Fischermädchen contrasting with the grimness of Die Stadt and the sad evocation that is Am Meer. It was not only the physically powerful climaxes that rang through body and spirit that made these performances so memorable, but a deep identification with the foibles of the human condition.

Crucial to the success of these songs was the support Hampson received from pianist, Maciej Pikulski. The colouring and weighting of chords was always carefully considered along with the sometimes subtle elements of rhythm. Notably, Pikulski let art conceal art as he unerringly mapped out the slow but steady rhythmic trajectory of Der Doppelgänger, bringing it to its plangent and devastating conclusion.

Five settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn confirmed Hampson’s well-known mastery of Mahler’s very particular sound-world. The innocence of Frülingsmorgen was a pleasant foil to the preceding songs, and the characterisation of the soldier and his girl in Aus! Aus! was deftly handled and well supported by Pikulski’s implacable rhythm. With Nicht Wiedersehen! the mood once again darkened, but in Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz, Pikulski’s poignant evocation of the alpine horn invested the song with an almost palpable nostalgia. Hampson’s wide-ranging dramatic powers were put to good use in the haunting Der Schildwache Nachtlied with its exchange between a sentinel and a phantom young woman.

After interval Hampson reappeared with an IPad from which he sang three songs by composers for the Opéra de Paris: Meyerbeer, Chausson and Saint-Saëns. Meyerbeer’s Sicilienne is an attractive piece that displays a welcome freedom from nineteenth-century opera’s stock-in-trade conventions. Hampson’s flexibility of tone and line displayed another aspect of well-disciplined technique. Chausson’s Le temps de lilas is possibly more associated with female singers (even though the great Gérard Souzay did record it). Hampson’s full-blooded account was thrilling and another highlight of the evening. Danse macabre in its original song version provided some comic light relief.

Entitled “Some Old Songs Re-Sung” the final section of the program (sung from memory) was an interesting and well-chosen sampler of American songs, with a nod to the contributions of people of colour and women. Beginning with Henry Burleigh’s Whitman setting, Ethiopia Saluting the Colours, Hampson vividly evoked various aspects of American life and times. Paul Bowles’s Blue Mountain Ballads (set to droll texts by Tennessee Williams) provided some whimsy, but there was both pathos and joy in three songs about rivers. Margaret Bonds’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers (with its changing moods brilliantly captured by Pikulski and Hampson) deserves to be better known. Stephen White’s arrangement of Shenandoah allowed Hampson to create glorious, long phrases and Copland’s The Boatmen’s Dance (with a soft ending) brought a smile to the faces of the appreciative audience as official proceedings came to a close. Two more of Copland’s Old American Songs (Simple Gifts and I bought me a cat) were enthusiastically received as a parting gift.

It is hard to find adequate superlatives to describe the prodigious artistry and musicianship that was on display at this recital. Most importantly, music was made and effectively shared. It really doesn’t get much better than this. If you are in a position to hear Hampson live, don’t hesitate!

Melbourne audiences have been particularly blessed to hear Hampson and Pikulski in such a fine venue as the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre and that they have formed part of a stellar roster for the centre’s 2018 Great Performers Series. This night will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to be present.

Thomas Hampson performs in the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House on Sunday June 3 at 3pm and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Hamer Hall on June 7 and in Geelong on June 8



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