Classical Music: A voice - and more

Thomas Hampson Wigmore Hall, London

Seeing that impressive expanse of white shirt-front on Monday evening, it was hard to believe that Thomas Hampson had been forced to cancel his Wigmore recital a week earlier because of flu. He looked, and sounded, the very essence of robust health, shaking the hand of his German accompanist, Wolfram Rieger, with considerate grace, lest he should crush him inadvertently.

Hampson is not just an all-American hunk with a magnificent baritone voice: he's an articulate and literate man who can provide his own programme notes and translations. Introducing the programme he had chosen from amongst Mahler's settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, he pointed out that the versions with piano are independent of the orchestral form in which they have become so well known - they are not merely drafts or reductions.

We also know, from piano rolls, how eloquently Mahler himself could project orchestral scores on the keyboard by the sheer force of his imagination. He could certainly play, too, but he made few concessions to the medium, disdaining pianistic wizardry.

It's unusual in a song recital to see the piano lid right up, yet Rieger was in no danger of dominating, and even against the unstinted military flourishes and vigorous tramping of "Revelge", Hampson did not have to force his voice. From the tremendous last line of "Scheiden und Meiden" (Parting and Farewell) to the pianissimo falling octave that closes "Der Schildwache Nachtlied" (The Sentinel's Night-song), two of the less well- known songs Hampson included, he was in perfect control of the widest imaginable range of volume.

He was fearless, too, beginning the evening with the treacherous cuckoo calls of "Ablosung im Sommer" - a spectacularly successful show of vocal confidence that was confirmed in the slow, rapturously ascending phrases of "Ich ging mit Lust". And then he also coloured his voice characterfully - sharply ironic in "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" (St Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish), or pitiful in "Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz", the farewell of a deserter about to be executed.

As an encore, Hampson offered a timely tribute to the conductor and outstanding interpreter of Mahler's music, Klaus Tennstedt, whose death had just been announced - a perfect choice in "Liebst du um Schonheit", which he clearly wanted not to be applauded, though the audience couldn't help themselves.

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