Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger: “Notturno”
Songs by Richard Strauss. Texts and translations. Deutsche Grammophon 00289 479 2943
Richard Strauss gets less respect as a song composer than do his contemporaries Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf. Aside from a few favorites from his early career (such as “Die Nacht” and “Morgen”) and his final years (Vier Letzte Lieder), most of the vast Strauss lieder output is seldom heard, and it’s possible that some of his own self-deprecating comments have been taken too literally by critics. “But,” as scholar Susan Youens has written, “there are gems to discover for those who wander off the beaten path, and more grounds for admiration than the doubters might suspect.”
Thomas Hampson, not one of the “doubters,” wanders off the beaten path in this tribute for the jubilee year of the composer, who was born on June 11, 1864. The baritone might well have wandered farther. Here he combines the all-too-familiar (“Die Nacht” and “Morgen”) with some “gems,” as analyzed by Youens in her intriguing essay in The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss (2010). His most noteworthy feat is the resuscitation of an important Strauss song not included in the Cambridge survey, the unusually long (fourteen-minute) “Notturno,”which gives its name to this worthy disc.
Writing in 1899 for baritone, solo violin and orchestra (as part of his Opus 44), Strauss set a hallucinatory poem by Richard Dehmel (1863–1920) that recounts a dream-vision of a friend’s ghost and the personification of Death playing violin, a fairly frequent image in Expressionist and earlier paintings. With its menace and horror, mixed with vaguely erotic imagery and an unsettling winter-forest atmosphere, the poem inspires interesting instrumental coloring and a set of taxing vocal effects that stop just short of Sprechstimme — not unlike Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (also with text by Dehmel). Dissonance catches its extremes of fear and loss, but the dominant musical style is disequilibrium — shifting keys and dynamics, inchoate melodic fragments, a through-composed style short on reassuring landmarks or repetitions.
Hampson has often performed“Notturno”with full orchestra, under conductors Sawallisch, Nagano and Tilson Thomas, and a video captures his virtuoso Salzburg rendition in 2005, led by Christian Thielemann. Here, in an arrangement with violin (Daniel Hope) and piano (Wolfram Rieger), he is even more impressive than with the Salzburg orchestra (although the festival’s solo violinist was more vivid). The loss of instrumental variety, such as the eerie woodwinds, seems to free Hampson far more than it hinders him. That is certainly true of his pacing, which is more dynamic than in the Thielemann collaboration. On this recording, as in a good film adaptation of a play, the actor looms larger and comes closer to the audience. His subtlety in the opening and closing lines grasps a mix of dread, longing, fascination and meditation, and the encounters in between are voiced with directed force. His sensitivity to line, color and interplay with instruments is as strong as ever. He fully exploits the operatic character of this hyper-song.
Other relatively obscure selections, such as “Vom künftigen Alter” (On Aging, 1929), add interest to the disc with their touching leave-taking themes. Whether on familiar ground with a subtle, sensual “Die Nacht” (1885) or exploring the wistful “Im Sonnenschein” (1935), Hampson proves himself as fine an interpreter of Strauss as we can hear today. Not least impressively, the occasional loss of youthful ease in his muted high range now adds poignancy to the deceptive innocence of “Freundliche Vision” or “Der Rosenband.” His warmth is compelling and his ambiguity daunting in the sentimental anticipated bereavement dramatized in “Befreit,” in which he apparently lets emotion overpower vocal control — a risk that pays dividends.
DAVID J. BAKER
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