16 Sep 2013
Thomas Hampson: Mahler Songs
Thomas Hampson “lives” Mahler. He's the greatest Mahler singer of our time, and a serious Mahler scholar as well.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
Thomas Hampson “lives” Mahler. He's the greatest Mahler singer of our time, and a serious Mahler scholar as well.
You could almost say that what Hampson doesn't know about Mahler might not be worth knowing, but he still finds something fresh and new. So, even after all these years, it was good to hear Hampson and Wolfram Rieger perform Mahler at the Wigmore Hall.
Hampson and long-term collaborator Rieger began at the beginning, with some of Mahler’s earliest songs such as Scheiden und Meiden and Aus! Aus! from around 1888. They are significant because they represent Mahler’s earliest engagement with Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of folk-derived poems published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in 1806/8. Their appeal to Mahler is obvious. He grew up in a small town with a military garrison. From childhood, he would have recognized the sound of marches and military bands and connected emotionally to the lives of soldiers, and to the simple townsfolk and huntsmen around him. Death was no stranger to Mahler even as a child. Indeed, his fascination with marches, funeral marches and resurrection stemmed from very deep sources in his psyche
Hampson has spoken out against war and gave a remarkable recital in which the Wunderhorn songs were perceptively presented by theme rather than as they appear in publication. Hampson called the Wunderhorn songs “negative love songs” for their protagonists retain sturdy defiance in adverse situations. Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (1898) refers to the picture by Moritz von Schwind. A man is imprisoned in a tower. Meanwhile a row of elves are busily trying to saw down the bars on the window to help him escape. “Gedanken sind Frei”, Hampson cried. Thoughts are free. As long as we can dream, we cannot be suppressed. Even now, that’s a revolutionary concept.
Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz, with its march rhythm just slightly off-beat, resolves in an evocation of trumpets and drums. The symphonist in Mahler was never far away, even when he was writing piano song. Revelge, that most nightmarish of songs is a masterpiece. If Hampson’s voice wasn’t, on this occasion, as rich and fluid as it can be, Rieger’s playing was manic, horrific. Rieger’s staccato ripped like a volley of machine-gun fire. As Hampson notes, the music evokes”Drang”, the Grim Reaper gone mad. With our modern ears, it’s like a forewarning of the slaughter of the trenches, and worse..”Tralali, tralaley, tralalera” is no lullaby here, but a bitter protest.
Although Alma would ridicule Alexander von Zemlinsky in her memoirs, the truth is more complex. Zemlinsky knew Alma’s songs years before they reached publication. Even though he was infatuated, he told her that her music was, like herself, “a warm, feminine sensitive opening but then of doodles, flourishes, unstylish passage work. Olbrich [a publisher] should have your songs performed by an artiste from the Barnum and Bailey (circus) company, wearing the customary black tails, and on his head, a dunce’s cap”. It is significant that Alma’s songs are orchestrated frequently by other composers, who want them to be more than they are.
The connections between Mahler, Zemlinsky, Strauss, Dehmel, Schoenberg and Webern are so well known they don’t need explanation. Hampson sang Zemlinksy’s Enbeitung, Alma’s Die stille Nacht.and three settings of Dehmel, two by Webern (Aufblick and Tief von fern, both 1901-4) and one by Strauss (Befreit, op 39/4 1898). In Befreit, the round vowel sounds resonated with warmth. “O Glück !” he sang, rising to a glowing crescendo. His family and friends were in the audience. Hampson’s feelings were touchingly sincere, though the poem itself is more equivocal.
The highlight of the evening was Schoenberg’s Erwartung op 2/1 1899), which pre-dates the monodrama op 17 (1909), and even Schoenberg’s meeting with Marie Pappenheim. The dedicatee was Zemlinsky, and the text by Richard Dehmel. It’s a cryptic poem where images are reversed. “Aus der meergrünen Tieche....schient der Mond”. A woman’s face appears under the water. A man throws a ring into the pond. Three opals sparkle. He kisses them, and in the sea-green depths “Ein Fenster tut sich auf”. Hampson sang, floating the words with eerie stillness. Then the punchline: “Aus der roten Villa neben den der toten Eiche” with which the poem began, a woman’s pale hand waves. Rieger played the circular figures so they felt obsessive, as if trapped in an endless mad dance. The similarities with the later Erwartung are obvious, but the song is fin-de- siècle symbolism and very early Expressionism rather than psychosis. In retrospect, it might seem eerily prophetic of the relationships between Mathilde Zemlinsky and Richard Gerstl, or indeed, Alma and Gropius.
Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder are so well known now that it’s sometimes forgotten - though not by Hampson - that they were originally published together with the Wunderhorn songs Revelge and Der Tambourg’sell. which weren’t included with the first Wunderhorn collections. In 1993, Hampson recorded an interesting collection of Wunderhorn-themed songs with Geoffrey Parsons, which included piano song versions of Urlicht and Es Sungen drei Engeln. This time, with Rieger at the Wigmore Hall, he separated the first four Rückert-Lieder with a Wunderhorn song (Erinnerung) and sang Liebst du um Schönheit as a finale, intensifying the underlying theme of the recital. “It’s a postcard”, said Hampson, “a message of love”. “If you love for beauty, youth or riches” runs the poem, “Do not love me. But if you love for the sake of love, Dich lieb’ ich immerdar”. The most beautiful, most tender song of the evening, straight from the heart.