Last night in Herbst Theatre, baritone Thomas Hampson gave his twelfth recital under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, for whom he has been performing since 1992. He was accompanied by pianist Wolfram Rieger, who was making his fourth appearance. (Hampson is one of several vocalists he accompanies.) Hampson is a vigorous champion of the art song repertoire; and he prepared a program that spanned from the middle of the eighteenth century to the immediate present, the latter in the form of a world premiere.
The evening began with Robert Schumann’s 1840 Opus 39, entitled simply Liederkreis. The title translates literally as “song circle” and is usually translated with the familiar phrase “song cycle.” It is based on twelve poems by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, selected from a collection called Intermezzo. This was the second time Schumann published under the Liederkreis title, the first being his Opus 24 setting of twelve poems by Heinrich Heine, also composed in 1840. While Opus 24 is structured around a narrative of unrequited love, the question of a narrative thread for Opus 39 remains a matter for scholarly debate. I tend to agree with Eric Bromberger’s notes for the text sheets that these twelve brief settings provide an outline of the Romantic worldview, covering both the diversity of perspectives and the intensity of each of them.
From this point of view, each individual song almost stands as a character in a metaphorical portrait gallery. Hampson seemed sympathetic to this approach, making an effort to “get in character” for each song in the collection. (He could probably draw on his experiences with so many different opera roles.) He did not have to overplay these “roles” in the intimate setting of Herbst Theatre. However, he clearly appreciated the extent to which his “musical character” was reinforced by physical bearing.
It is also important to take note of Rieger’s accompaniment. The piano was, after all, Schumann’s principal instrument; and, as song collections go, Opus 39 offers up a fair share of impressive writing for the piano part. Rieger approached this work with what might be called “expressive discipline,” giving equal attention to a precise account of the many technical demands and that level of rhetorical expressiveness appropriate to the Romantic movement. All of these factors were always kept in perfect balance with Hampson’s execution, making for a truly exciting account of Schumann’s music.
The twentieth century was represented by seven songs by Samuel Barber. These had their own “cyclic” progression, beginning with “With Rue My Heart is Laden,” which he composed as a teenaged student at the Curtis Institute of Music, and progressing through to the three songs of Opus 45, his last work for voice. Since that left only three songs, the “in between” period was only sparsely sampled; but the account of Opus 45 was particularly impressive. Each of the texts is a poem responding to another poem, the most striking of which is the surreal pastoral setting of “A Green Lowland of Pianos.” By keeping his sense of whimsy under control, Hampson allowed Czesław Miłosz’ text to speak for itself with full effect.
The world premiere was by Michael Hersch, entitled Domicilium: a song cycle after poems of Thomas Hardy. The work is in four movements, each based on fragments of Hardy’s texts. However, in another gesture of surrealism, the texts for the first movement are never sung. That movement is a solo performed both at the keyboard and inside the body of the piano.
The notes that Hersch provided for the text sheet did not really explain why he fragmented his source material to a point that the reader would not be able to tell is this was poetry or prose (a reasonable question where Hardy is concerned). It is almost as if he wished to perform the intellectual exercise of asking what we would know of Hardy if these fragments were all we had (as is the case with Sappho). As might be imagined, creating a musical rhetoric around such fragments was no easy task; but Hampson certainly gave Hersch’s efforts a sincere and solid account. Still, this is music that demands further listening experiences before any conclusions can be drawn about either the score or its proper execution.
Hampson finished out the evening with two encores. The first was one of Barber’s most familiar songs, the third from his Opus 13 set, his setting of James Agee’s “Sure on this Shining Night.” This was delivered with such crystal clarity and focused expressiveness that no text sheet was necessary. This was followed by the third song in the first set of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs, “Long Time Ago.” Hampson introduced this one by telling the audience that it was time for a “real tune;” and this was the sort of song that could serve as a “poster child” for Hampson’s Song of America Project.