MSO: Thomas Hampson Sings Mahler

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Published: 17th June, 2018

Since Thomas Hampson’s Masterclass and Recital last week at the Melbourne Recital Centre, a fan club has grown rapidly in Melbourne. This tall, handsome and imposing baritone has had people swooning over his presence and his velvet voice. I came to Hamer Hall to see what all the fuss was about!

There was much more than Hampson on offer from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andrea Molino. It was certainly not a happy-go-lucky program of easy listening; rather, it demanded much from the audience, and much more from the orchestra. Entitled “Thomas Hampson Sings Mahler”, the program wrapped Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Geselleninside Mahler’s Totenfeier, Messiaen’s Le Tombeau Resplendissantand Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung. This ultra-romantic preoccupation with death, tombs and the journey beyond life had the audience constantly experiencing the full gamut of emotions.

Molino, admired recently in Melbourne for his excellent King Roger(Szymanowski) for Opera Australia, conducted this entire MSO program from memory. His clear and elegant style controlled the large orchestral forces effectively throughout, commanding rhythmic precision, frequent changes of tempi, expansive phrases, and a rich tonal palette with confidence and ease.

Mahler’s Totenfeier(Funeral Rites) was written in 1888 as a sort of sequel to his First Symphony – the funeral rites of the hero –  and used the large ultra-Romantic orchestra. This clearly worked for Mahler, as he expanded it a little more in 1893 to become the monumental first movement of his Second Symphony (Resurrection) using even larger forces. The low orchestral string opening swells adding wind then brass and percussion, with the Dies Irae(Last Judgement theme) haunting the texture. Rubato abounds here, and Molino controlled this superbly. Dynamics and textures, the colours changing frequently, were also clear and transparent, or thick and dark as appropriate. This is the young Mahler though, and while complex in structure, the orchestral writing does not feel so far removed from Beethoven, via Brahms and Schubert.

Another early work from Mahler (early 1880s but not orchestrated until the first performance in 1896), Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen(Songs of a Wayfarer) completed the first half. Four songs, each with texts written by Mahler himself, have a folk quality to them, as does some of the musical material. They follow a sad traveller, wandering aimlessly, thinking of what might have been, and feeling his emotional journey too – gentle sorrow, through to painful torment, a small taste of peace, but a lasting feeling (in rest, or perhaps in death) of the dichotomy of love and pain.

The folk-like Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht(On my sweetheart’s wedding day) is effectively bitter-sweet –  the singer sees beauty in nature, but only feels the sorrow of the beloved marrying someone else. The second song Ging heut’Morgen über’s Feld(I went out this morning into the fields) similarly celebrates the natural world’s joy and wonder, but the wayfarer remembers that his own happiness is gone forever. The main melody in this song was later used in the opening movement of the First Symphony.

Intense agony is the feeling in the third and highly contrasting song, Ich hab’ein glühend Messer (I have a red-hot knife). This is physical agony, with music and words to match. Die zwei blauen Augen(The Two Blue Eyes) is the final movement, and provides a resolution of sorts. Our wayfarer can no longer bear the grief and pain that the image of his sweetheart’s eyes cause him. He lies under a linden tree, and the music here is also used in the Funeral March (third movement) of the First Symphony. Here the wayfarer sleeps peacefully for the first time. Everything is good again – love and pain and world and dreams.  This final section is full of major/minor tonality uncertainties. It feels resolved in the major, but then the final chord is minor.

This work was the drawcard for many in the audience – an opportunity to hear Thomas Hampson sing Mahler, the composer with whom he has been associated most closely for his career. Hampson describes Mahler’s songs as ‘a dialogue between the singer and the orchestra’, rather than a melody sung with an accompaniment.

Hampson’s stage presence was commanding, and his engagement with music and text was visceral: the apparent effortlessness of his voice, his perfectly expressive face, nothing was contrived. He was the composer embodied. He breathed in the orchestra around him and was the wayfarer for the entire journey – we could hear the sorrow and the pain, even while he described the beauty of nature. His superb honey tone colour and sense of line allowed the expansive phrases to maintain a sense of movement throughout. The red-hot knife in his chest needed no fake blood to transmit his deep pain – the sound and the body language sufficed. Every word of the text was clear, and every note that was played by the orchestra was part of the Hampson wayfarer’s world.  Maestro Molino and the MSO deserve great credit too. Molino and Hampson were in concert the whole time, and the special orchestral colours were superb in the many small instrumental solo passages. This was an outstanding performance.

Thankfully interval allowed the audience time to reflect on what we had just experienced and to celebrate it in animated conversations before returning for a rich and demanding dessert of Olivier Messiaen and Richard Strauss.

Messiaen’s Le Tombeau resplendissant (The resplendent tomb) demonstrated the way in which Molino inhabits the music as a conductor. This intense work, composed in 1931 when Messiaen was only 23 years old, is full of angst in an early exploration and affirmation of his beliefs and Christian imagery. The powerful first movement with its driving rhythmic punctuations and sweeping melodies hints at the composer’s affinity with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Molino and the MSO gave us power and precision here. The more lyrical movements, with expressive woodwind solos merging from one instrument to the next, allowed for more delicacy and reflection before a return to the awesome power of the first ideas. A meditative slow section concludes the work in E Major, the key of perfect love and resolution. Here the muted strings and the MSO cellos in outstanding form concluded the work in thrilling ascending unison, with a sound very close to that of a human voice.

Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) was composed by Richard Strauss in 1888, at the age of 24 years. With a narrative structure of Strauss’ own making, it depicts “the dying hours of a man who has striven towards the highest idealistic aims, maybe indeed those of an artist”.  Sixty years later, on his deathbed Strauss told his daughter-in-law that he could hear “so much music”. She thought he wanted to write it down, but he said he had composed it already in Tod und Verklärung.

As the final course of a heavy meal, I found this expansive work a roller-coaster of emotional journeying. It was at times exquisitely lyrical, sometimes yearning, even playful, at other times foreboding, threatening, agonised and brutal, and then almost heroic.  This was an electrifying performance from Andrea Molino and the MSO.

The program was cleverly constructed with all four works being those of composers in their early twenties, all dealing with big ideas about life and death, and all directly informing works they would compose in their later years.  Undeniably though, the highlight was Thomas Hampson, and the audience talk was still all about him after the concert. The most asked question was “When will he be back here in Melbourne?”.

I was among them.  I’ve joined the Hampson fan club.


Margaret Arnold attended this concert at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on June 7, 2018.