His recordings with EMI include both studio recordings and live performances, and this CD represents him well through the depth and variety of repertoire it contains.
Of the two CDs in this set, the first CD is devoted primarily Italian and French composers, with the focus mainly on opera, while the second has mostly German composers, with many of the selections being Lieder. There are some exceptions on both CDs, with some songs by Rossini augmenting the Italian repertoire on the first one; similarly, some songs by American composers like Griffes and Foster round out the Lieder on the second.
Hampson’s work in opera includes a number of prominent Italian roles, like the character of Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and his performance of “Largo al factotum” is characteristic of his clear and straightforward delivery of the text. A parallel piece not usually associated with baritones is “Von der Schönheit,” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which requires a comparable approach to diction that must also preserve the musicality implicit in the title of the piece. The latter is an excerpt from the recording of the less familiar version of Das Lied that involves two male singers (tenor and baritone), which Hampson made with Peter Seiffert and conducted by Simon Rattle.
Likewise, Hampson is part of some excellent recordings of French opera, such as Gounod’s Faust, and his interpretation of Valentin’s aria “Avant de quitter des lieux” is among the finest from recent decades. His intelligent approach to French repertoire is also represented from a selection from Massenet’s Hérodiade, another fine recording, which also calls to mind his memorable performance several years ago in the new production of the same composer’s Thaïs at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In addition, Hampson has performed some of the French versions of Verdi’s operas, and he made an exceptional contribution in Don Carlos, which is represented here with two excerpts. For those not familiar with the recording, the selections should give an idea of its merits, not only for Hampson’s contribution, but the other performers, as well.
When it comes to the German repertoire, the selection from Weber’s Euryanthe represents Hampson’s fine diction and nuanced phrasing. Likewise the excerpt from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt is an excellent choice, and the aria “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhaüser conveys some of the power of Hampson’s voice. Yet the baritone’s performances of Lieder are critical for an understanding of his contribution to this repertoire. Hampson’s fine, resonant tone is well suited to Lieder, and his interpretations of Schumann are outstanding, as is shown in the selection from his recording of the Dichterliebe as well as several of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. As a Mahler interpreter, Hampson is highly respected, and those who enjoy the music included on this CD may wish to explore the singer’s interpretations of Mahler’s settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
As difficult as it sometimes may be to find a representative sampling in any CD entitled “The Very Best,” this selection meets the challenge. Yet it would have been convenient to have the texts and translations of the works included. A discography would be of some assistance for this retrospective CD set and others like it, rather than the selective listings of recordings that were apparently made with EMI alone. These are minor quibbles, however, and should by no means suggest any reservations about this fine collection.
James L. Zychwoicz