Thomas Hampton: Voices of Our Time songs by Mahler

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LABELS: Digital Classics
WORKS: songs by Mahler
PERFORMER: Thomas Hampson (baritone), Wolfram Rieger (piano) (Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris)


Both these musicians were filmed in what might well be judged by posterity to have been their prime: Ian Bostridge in 2000, and Thomas Hampson in 2002. They sing to huge and ecstatic audiences in the Châtelet (just one shot of the chandelier per film) – Bostridge delighting them with a most thoughtfully shaped programme of Schubert and Wolf; Hampson with a carefully ordered recital of Mahler’s settings of verse from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Lieder is tricky on DVD. The unnaturally close focus on every facial gesture and grimace can distract in a way it never does on disc, or even in live performance. Ten years ago, Bostridge was singing with more stillness and physical focus than he does now, but it can still look a painful business.

The trademark plangency of his intense legato yields particularly haunting performances of Schubert’s ‘Der Zwerg’, and of the D768 ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’; though songs such as ‘Nacht und Träume’ can milk this to the point where they become overly languid and merely tone-focused.

Where more rigorous rhythmic definition and varied colour is needed, Roger Vignoles’s piano playing invariably restores amends. Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder is where Bostridge’s high literary intelligence comes into its own, with a highly compelling set of love songs, both spiritual and sensual. Everywhere Vignoles is an inspired and inspiring accompanist.

The recital is intercut, somewhat bumpily, by some tense to-camera reflections from both musicians backstage: Bostridge gawkily boyish, and Vignoles as a diffident eminence grise.

This aspect of the production is far more comfortably done in the Thomas Hampson film, where both the American baritone and his pianist Wolfram Rieger speak warmly, fluently and revealingly about their responses to Mahler. What comes over in performance is their sheer joy in the repertoire and in each other’s musicianship.

Hampson thinks of the singer as tale-teller – and his vividly engaged, word-lively performances bear this out. I particularly admired the range of colour and tone of voice within his set of ‘war’ songs: from a ‘Tambourg’sell’ rigid with fear, to a trance-like ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’.


That is not what the songs are called here. Strangely, unlike in the Bostridge film, they are named in English, though there is no option in the menu for subtitling. Hilary Finch