MUSIC: Picking lotus and talking Rott

The American baritone Thomas Hampson offered an imaginative programme of Grieg, Butterworth and Mahler at his Wigmore recital on Friday. His American accent suits Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad, may even be closer to 19th-century Salopian than the tight-vowelled delivery of most British singers. Songs that can seem small here became unbearably poignant, as when Housman's line "lads that will die in their glory and never be old" foreshadowed Butterworth's own death in 1916.

The detail of Hampson's artistry emerged in "Is my team ploughing?", a dialogue between a dying man and a younger friend. As the first recalled "the harness jingle", Hampson barely whispered; as the youth prepared to answer the dying man's last question, he inserted the slightest exhalation of breath, as of resigned toleration. His art is in the notes, and between them.

With his bold accompanist, Wolfram Rieger, crouched over the piano like Gary Oldman's Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, Hampson sang Mahler (Kindertotenlieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) with great intensity. In the third of the wayfarer's songs, he achieved a rapturous diminuendo on the word "Sonnenschein". Then, bending at the waist like a soul singer, he voiced a frightening vehemence for "I have a gleaming knife in my breast". With accompaniment stripped back to piano, these songs become starker, more private. Hampson's power was measured in the length and depth of the silence after his last song. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to break the spell.

Two days later at the Barbican, Hampson was one of the "dream team" soloists for Das Lied von der Erde, the second leg of the LSO's Mahler series. Mezzo and tenor usually tackle this cycle, but Mahler was equally happy with the baritone option. The Canadian tenor Ben Heppner brought Wagnerian steel to the drinking song, yet also found a yielding quality to describe the spring blossom. Still, Hampson dominated, smiling teasingly as he contemplated young girls picking lotus blossoms, then serenely ecstatic in the long final farewell - a telling contrast to Michael Tilson Thomas, bobbing and weaving to coax ever more beautiful sounds from the orchestra.

The concert had opened with brief extracts from works by Hans Rott, a fellow-student of Mahler's at the Vienna Conservatory who died at the age of 26. As Tilson Thomas said in a brief introduction, there is "lyrical, pastoral enchantment" in Rott's music, and the Scherzo from his Symphony proved indeed to be a "mighty movement" - Mahler himself admired the Symphony, borrowed from it, and said that he and Rott were "fruits from the same tree". The LSO made much of Rott's brassy blasts and revelled in his writing for strings, from the most lustrous grandiloquence to the tiniest shudder of a single plucked string. Mahlerian indeed.

Nick Kimberley

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