OPERA NEWS - Thomas Hampson: "Tides of Life"
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Thomas Hampson: "Tides of Life"

CD Button Songs by Schubert, Brahms, Wolf and Barber. Netherlands Female Youth Choir, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Thompson. Texts, no translations. Channel Classics CCS 38917

Recordings Tides of Life CD Cover 517
Critics Choice Button 1015

ORCHESTRAL (re)arrangements of art songs may strike some listeners as a bore or an affront. But this Thomas Hampson program with string chamber orchestra features performers so expert, cohesive and spirited that they just might disarm such critics. It helps that the baritone, more than a quarter-century after his first solo recording, is in remarkably secure vocal estate, while his rapport with the songs of Schubert, Brahms, Wolf and Barber is as convincing as ever, sparked by a spirit of discovery. Before recording this program, Hampson and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta chamber orchestra took it on a twelve-city tour, and that experience gives their work a palpable lift.

The Sinfonietta’s twenty-odd strings perform accompaniments arranged by David Matthews that are tasteful and effective. Schubert’s “An die Leier” is almost predestined for all-string accompaniment, as it’s called “To My Lyre” and the text harps (so to speak) on “my strings,” which “resound only to the strains of love.” The players run with that message admirably here, managing the song’s stark contrasts and transitions more smoothly than some piano versions.

The string-orchestra arrangements work best in the predominantly legato songs, such as Wolf’s “Anakreons Grab,” or the second half of his “Auf einer Wanderung,” as its woozy hero blisses out on the beauties of nature. In the first three of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, the lower strings are appropriate to the lugubrious Old Testament reminders of the curse of mortality. Twentieth-century arrangers have harnessed brass and winds for greater contrast in this Brahms series (as in Malcolm Sargent’s version with Kathleen Ferrier), but Hampson is compelling with strings alone. His version is especially unusual in its daringly fast tempo—ideal for the anguished text—in the contrasting segments of “Denn es gehet dem Menschen.”

In Wolf’s whirlwind “Der Ratten-fänger” (The Rat Catcher), a tour-de-force for Hampson, the string accompaniment has bite, recalling Beethoven’s “Grosse Fugue.” But I would have welcomed more orchestral differentiation among the three stanzas, each of which proclaims a different aspect of the character’s prowess—as exterminator, then pied piper and finally Don Juan.

The sweet-toned Netherlands Female Youth Choir, backed by subtle string chords, joins Hampson in a buoyant “Ständchen” (Serenade), D. 921, not to be confused—as the liner note does—with the posthumous and better-known “Ständchen,” to a different text.

Throughout, tempos are brisk, and the Amsterdam musicians shine. While the booklet is ambiguous about who’s conducting, photos from rehearsals show Hampson’s arm raised toward the players. He at least collaborated closely, and rewardingly, with the group’s artistic director, Candida Thompson. 

Hampson’s singing has operatic thrust, color and resonance, suavely abetted by his diction and phrasing. Without straining, he seems to own the yearning, world-weary moods and the crowning outburst in Samuel Barber’s early setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach; he matches the power and subtlety achieved in his 1994 recording of the work (which boasted the refinement of the Emerson String Quartet). In that song and elsewhere, the only vocal limitations appear occasionally at the extremes of his range, with some shallow bass lines or a bump in the top pianissimos. But Hampson remains an authentic master of song, with a passionate engagement that almost conceals his considerable art. —David J. Baker 

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