To explain why it had taken him so long to come to Australia, Thomas Hampson gestured to his surroundings at the end of his Great Performers recital saying, “Nobody told me about this.” It was obvious that the renowned American baritone had been genuinely impressed by the acoustics of Melbourne’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
Those who attended his truly masterly Master Class with three of Victorian Opera’s principal singers (tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas, baritone Stephen Marsh and bass Jeremy Kleeman) the previous evening had already discovered that Thomas Hampson is more than a combination of beautiful voice, good looks and imposing stature; he is also a man of wide musical experience and considerable learning, intelligence and generosity of spirit – a singer and teacher of great energy and imagination who engages with people in a sympathetic and humorous way.
All of this and more were on display in a recital that really lived up to the name of Great Performers. Apart from his striking appearance, the listener’s initial impression was his tremendous vocal power. Wearing a dinner suit with a high-collared shirt suggestive of nineteenth century Romanticism, he began with Der Atlas, the first of six songs selected from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Mighty in stature and stern in demeanour, it was a dramatic protest against a fate compelling him to “Bear the unbearable” that set the hall ringing. The following Ihr Bildwas a total contrast and may have reassured some listeners that we were not to have an almost Wagnerian version of Lieder, but interpretations that, while somewhat operatic, were to be sensitive, coloured and dramatic in accordance with Heine’s text and Schubert’s music. Focussed power became soft suede caress until the desolation of the final outburst of anguished desolation. The happier note struck in the ebb and flow of Das Fischermädchenwas further illustration of Hampson’s range of emotional expression.
His quiet attention to every piano note was initially most evident during the shimmering introduction to Die Stadt. It was clear throughout the recital that a song did not begin and end with the vocal line; Hampson inhabited the mood of each piece even before and after any note was sounded and his collaboration with pianist Maciej Pikulski reflected a shared artistic understanding of musical intention. The extremely slow pace of Der Doppelgänger was laden with atmosphere, the audience keen to let the final soft notes linger on before bursting into applause.
A notable interpreter of Mahler’s vocal music, Hampson concluded the first half of the program with five songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. A graceful, smiling Frülingsmorgenwas followed by Aus! Aus! with its marching rhythms and opportunities for humour, which he fully exploited. Poignantly expressed grief, a homesick deserter’s sad tale of capture and, finally, the fluctuating emotions of Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Song), which ended on the softest head resonance, had listeners removed to other worlds.
Providing a further dimension to a program of contrasting qualities, three pieces by composers for the Opéra de Paris opened the second half of the recital. Although he was occasionally dependent on a recalcitrant iPad for text prompts, Hampson’s account of Meyerbeer’s Sicilienne made a joyful beginning. Chausson’s Le temps des lilas still gave off a perfumed fragrance, despite the initial iPad glitch, and Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre was invested with satisfying verve and bite.
With his deep interest in history and political science, Hampson has become something of an ambassador for the American Songbook, and many audience members found “Some old songs re-sung” the most rewarding part of his recital. His instruction to the audience before the encores to “read the program” about them was an indication of his belief in their importance for understanding the social development and cultural evolution of his country. Beginning with Henry Burleigh’s Ethiopia Saluting the Colours, his more relaxed style married well with the underlying bitterness. He conveyed a mixture of nobility and expansive acceptance in Margaret Bond’s The Negro Speaks of Riversand found plenty of fun in Paul Bowles’ four Blue Mountain Ballads. Shenandoahwas given rolling might and Copland’s The Boatman’s Dancewas made wonderfully evocative in its long, resonant calls of “High row…”.
If I could have put in one encore request it would have been for Simple Gifts. He must have been reading my mind. It was simply splendid. Entertainment was the key to the final offering: Copland’s I Bought me a Cat. It was yet another opportunity to enjoy the playful side of his personality and the wide range of his vocal attributes – including animal noises.
Now that Thomas Hampson has discovered the acoustic attributes of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, we may (hopefully) hear this extraordinary artist in Melbourne again fairly soon.
Reviewer Heather Leviston heard Thomas Hampson with pianist Maciej Pikulski at the Melbourne Recital Centre on May 31, 2018, and the previous evening his “truly masterly” Master Class for Victorian Opera.