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.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
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.