Thomas Hampson presented an elegant concert of songs by Richard Strauss this evening, in the Salzburg Festival House’s small hall (oddly called the “House for Mozart”), in commemoration of the composer’s 150th birth year.
Hampson was not in full voice tonight. This came out most apparently in the mezza voce sections, where his instrument cracked and sounded forced. On the other hand, the performance came across as very human, which added to the elegance. For the first half of the program, Hampson performed songs composed by Strauss over many years from the first half of his life, mostly for his wife or close acquaintances to sing in his parlor. Hampson made these intimate. We could almost hear a fireplace crackling. His singing also gave the feel more of a poetry reading with piano accompaniment than of a concert. His voice kept its musicality throughout, but the music was just there to accentuate the poems, which had their share of melancholy, backwards looking with allusions to Schubert.
Pianist Wolfram Rieger was easily Hampson’s equal. He kept himself in the background, never overshadowing the singing or the poetic line. When Strauss composed extended parts just for the piano, Rieger maintained the balance and flow and created more pure poetry without words.
The second half of the concert began with a strange 15-minute piece, “Notturno” – music by Strauss to words by Richard Dehmel, where violinist Yamei Yu joined Hampson and Rieger. Her violin squeeked too much. This broke the poetry. Of course, the piece was strange enough to break the poetry as well. There is probably a reason it is seldom performed.
The scheduled program concluded with three later songs based on poems by Friedrich Rückert. I think Mahler picked the better selection of Rückert poetry, and probably also wrote more dramatic and emotional song music than Strauss. Hampson gave us one of these Mahler settings of Rückert as his final encore, with astonishing contrast. For the other encores, Hampson pointed out that Strauss had lived for 85 years and composed right to the end – so a lot of songs. He picked some nice ones for the encores that brought us back to the concert’s elegant first half poetry reading.