Tanglewood: Thomas Hampson Marking a birth and a death


LENOX -- The program was billed as a remembrance of Richard Strauss on the 150th anniversary of his birth. As it turned out, it also recalled the death of the German lieder tradition.

Baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Wolfram Rieger re-created "Strauss and His World" in a Tanglewood recital Wednesday night. They followed a survey of Strauss songs with examples by Webern, Zemlinsky, Alma and Gustav Mahler, and Schönberg, all of the songs dating from the last years of the 19th century or the very first years of the 20th.

After then, Strauss turned mostly to opera, Gustav Mahler died, Schönberg founded the 12-tone school and Webern joined it. Zemlinsky, Schönberg’s brother-in-law, disappeared from view. War and revolution overtook the world. The tradition dating back to Beethoven and Schubert was finished.

We’ve been feeling the loss ever since, if you consider how popular music and culture, along with classical composers, have muscled the lied aside. All those weepy lovers and moonlit nights: Who needs them?

Well, Hampson is one of the singers who need them. To adulation by his screaming fans, he filled Ozawa Hall with his powerful voice, sometimes obscuring the less assertive but no less telling work of Rieger at the piano.


The Strauss project is one of several Hampson has undertaken. A few years ago, for example, his brought his much-traveled "Song of America" recital program to Tanglewood. The last half of the Strauss program was built around the poetry of Richard Dehmel and Friedrich Rückert.

There was much to admire but much to wonder about in this immersion in Strauss and his fellow late romantics. Hampson’s voice and expressive range are capable of so much that he sometimes seemed tempted to do too much.

Strauss’ "Die Nacht" ("The night") was a haunting evocation of night’s power to steal everything from the world, including one’s beloved. "Morgen" ("Tomorrow"), on the other hand, was a golden display of smooth vocalism that drew the song’s gentle lines out beyond their natural limits.

His dramatizations were sometimes potent, as in Zemlinsky’s "Einbietung" ("Invitation"), with its picture of hair crackling under the lover’s fervor. The overdrawn ending of Gustav Mahler’s "Um Mitternacht" ("At Midnight"), on the other hand, seemed to defy rather than submit to the Lord’s power at the mystical hour. It was sometimes left to Rieger to supply the understated emotions inherent in the music.


For all that, the program showed the interesting similarities and differences among these composers working in the same vein and period. Schönberg and Webern were represented by songs from early in their careers, but it was possible to hear in their chromaticism how the composers would go on to serialism, using the lied to enrich their more complex music. Long live the lied.


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