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Richard Strauss: <em>Notturno</em>
10 Jul 2014

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Thomas Hampson, baritone; Wolfram Rieger, piano; Daniel Hope, violin.

Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 2943 7 CD DDD GH [CD]

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Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings of Strauss’s complete lieder may have set the benchmark (the EMI Classic 6-CD set was re-released in August 2013 on the Warner Classics Budget Boxes label), but Hampson has established himself as one of the foremost interpreters of the German Romantic repertory; and, following his much-admired 2011 recording of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, here the American baritone celebrates Strauss’s 150th anniversary with an imaginative recording which takes the listener on a tour through the composer’s life and confirms Hampson’s discernment and sensitivity to this idiom and language.

We begin with two early songs from the Op.10 (1885) settings of Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg. Though, like most of these songs, they are only a few minutes in length ‘Zueignung’ (Dedication) and ‘Die Nacht’ demonstrate Hampson’s directness in conveying the young composer’s rapturous moods; the voice may itself have lost some of its youthful bloom but there is great character and richness, an intelligent sense of musical line, and a strength and brightness at the top which brings vigour and ardour. Hampson is also, throughout the recording, superbly attentive to the German text. Pianist Wolfram Rieger is an eloquent partner, providing a warm foundation in the subdued passages, the delicate inter-phrase commentaries well-shaped.

Though many share a brooding intensity, these songs are by no means singular in mood and Hampson is alert to this variety and — in ‘Winternacht’, for example, with its graphic response to Adolf Friedrich von Schack’s nature imagery — to Strauss’s overt word-painting. Strauss’s setting of Felix Dahn’s ‘Ach weh mir unglückhaftem Mann’ (Alas I am an unlucky man) expands the lyric intensity into dramatic realms and Hampson’s baritone assumes a more operatic quality. The song’s direct speech is delivered with immediacy, Hampson finding a dreamy softness for the maiden’s imagined question, ‘Was soll der großen Rosenstrauß,/ die Schimmel an dem Wagen?’ (‘What are you doing with this large bouquet of roses, and these white horses and carriage?’), while Rieger summons the energy of the trotting horses with their clanging bells and the crack of the rider’s whip with éclat.

The elongated vowels of Karl Friedrich Henckell’s brief poetic phrases form extended, searching melodic lines in ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ (Rest, my soul). As the poet-speaker seeks peace in a tumultuous world, Hampson’s baritone rises with surprising urgency and distress — Diese Zeiten/ Sind gewaltig,/ Bringen Herz/ Und Hirn in Not’ (These times are powerful, bring torment to heart and mind) — before the piano postlude gently quells the anguish.

Both performers surmount the technical challenges of ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ (Secret Invitation) with accomplishment, Hampson surely negotiating the unpredictable melodic twists and turns while Rieger captures the ever-changing moods in the accompaniment. The poet-speaker’s yearning for the longed-for ‘wondrous night’ (‘O komme, du wunderbare, ersehnte Nacht!’) is rich and radiant; in contrast, ‘Morgen’, presaged by Rieger’s articulate introduction, is wonderfully intimate, the voice shimmering gently as Hampson dreams of ‘tomorrow’, when the ‘silence of happiness’ will settle upon the lovers. ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’ begins with the still composure of a lullaby but surges impassionedly, before closing with an ethereal whisper, as the poet-speaker is drawn ‘through the grey twilight to the land of love, into a blue, mild light’ (‘durch Dämmergrau in der Liebe Land,/ in ein mildes, blaues Licht’).

Three songs from the last few years of the nineteenth century capture three different and quintessential Straussian moods: the sincerity and wistful melancholy of Detlev von Liliencron’s poetry in ‘Sehnsucht’ (1896), with its quiet, declamatory opening and wonderfully floating closing phrase, is complemented by the buoyant, pure joy of ‘Das Rosenband’ (Ribbons of roses) (Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, 1897), which in turn fades into the bitter-sweet passion of ‘Befreit’ (Released) (Richard Dehmel, 1898). In the latter, the baritone melody is skilfully crafted, building in concentration, powerfully projected. Indeed, Hampson’s thoughtful shaping of each individual narrative is impressive; the tempi are well-chosen, perfectly matched to sentiment, and the feelings and dramas that unfold are convincing and engrossing.

By 1929 Strauss had his great operatic successes behind him and it is perhaps not surprising that the Op.87 Rückert settings of that year are grander in scale. A reflection on approaching old age, ‘Vom künftigen Alter’ is characterised by a quasi-orchestral rhetoric in the accompaniment, and Rieger relishes the contrasts between the sweeping flourishes in the right hand and more subdued passages which intimate the waning of the poet-speaker’s youthful vigour and the pallor of the fading roses. In ‘Und dann nicht mehr’ (And then no more), Hampson’s outpouring of regret for an irretrievable moment is spacious and even, each statement of Rückert’s oft-repeated refrain imbued with an individual hue and complemented by the vivid piano commentary. ‘Im Sonnenschein’ (In the sunshine) sweeps elatedly to the final couplet, ‘Ich geh’, die süße Müdigkeit des Lebens nun auszuruhn,/ Die Lust, den Gram der Erde nun auszuheilen im Sonnenschein’ (I go now; let the sweet weariness of life rest now, and let the pleasure and sadness of the earth heal now in the sunshine), in which the broadening of the tempo and the openness of the baritone melody wonderfully capture a sense of the composer’s love of life.

The title song, ‘Notturno’ (1899), is the longest and probably the least well-known of this selection. In this powerful miniature drama, originally composed for voice and orchestra, Hampson and Rieger are joined by violinist Daniel Hope, the latter representing the figure of Death who appears as a nocturnal fiddle player who haunts a troubled dreamer. The song showcases Hampson’s control and range, of register and of colour — especially the mahogany richness of the bottom; Hope’s rhapsodic interjections are entrancing. If the song’s melodic invention is less appealing than in some of the other songs, the performance is still a captivating one.

This is a very valuable contribution to the Strauss celebrations this year. Though there is a pleasing generous acoustic, the recording does perhaps favour the voice and there are times when the piano accompaniment lacks clarity in the middle and lower registers; but, Hampson’s impeccable diction and intelligent interpretation, and Rieger’s attentive, persuasive accompaniments, work together to produce performances which are unfailingly absorbing and sincere.

Claire Seymour


Richard Strauss (1864-1949): ‘Zueignung’ Op.10 No.1 (1885), ‘Die Nacht’ Op.10 No.3 (1885), ‘Winternacht’ Op.15 No.2 (1886), ‘Mein Herz ist stumm’, Op.19 No.6 (1888), ‘Ach weh mir unglückhaftem Mann’ Op.21 No.4 (1889), ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ Op.27 No.1 (1894), ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ Op.27, No.3 (1894), ‘Morgen’ Op.27 No. 4 (1894), ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’ Op.29. No.1 (1895), ‘Sehnsucht’ Op.32 No.2 (1896), ‘Das Rosenband’ Op.36 No.1 (1897), ‘Befreit’ Op.39 No.4 (1898), ‘Notturno’ Op.44 No.1 (1899), ‘Freundliche Vision’ Op.48 No.1 (1901), ‘Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland’ Op.56 No.6 (1904-06), ‘Vom künftigen Alter’ Op.87 No.1 (1929), ‘Und dann nicht mehr’ Op.87 No.3 (1929), ‘Im Sonnenschein’ Op.87 No.4 (1929).

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