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Baritone Thomas Hampson’s Three New Releases

VARIOUS COMPOSERS: “DES KNABEN WUNDERHORN.” Thomas Hampson, baritone; Geoffrey Parsons, piano. Teldec 244 923-2(compact disc).

MAHLER: “KINDERTOTENLIEDER”; SYMPHONY NO. 6. Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting; Hampson, baritone. DG 427 697-2 (two compact discs).

MOZART: “DON GIOVANNI.” Hampson, Edita Gruberova, Roberta Alexander, Barbara Bonney, Hans Peter Blochwitz, Laszlo Polgar, Robert Holl, Anton Scharinger; Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting. Teldec 244 184-2 (three compact discs).

The “Wunderhorn” songs are mostly unfamiliar works by nine composers, with the standout being Loewe’s grippingly dramatic “Herr Oluf,” an “Erlkonig"-type ballad that requires five different voices for its characters. Also impressive is Zemlinsky’s “Das bucklichte Mannlein,” but nothing in the album is ever less than Lieder singing of the highest standards. Hampson handles his rich lyric voice without technical problems; his ability to color, his mixture of chest and head voice and his high piano singing are stunning. Parsons is a true partner in every way.

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The Mahler cycle here probably comes closer to the classic Kathleen Ferrier/Bruno Walter version with the same orchestra than any subsequent recording. Although usually sung by women, the third song--the text of which begins, “Wenn dein Mutterlein"--is unquestionably masculine. Hampson has style without mannerism and passion without bathos in a wrenching account of these superb songs. Surprisingly, Bernstein’s conducting is occasionally plodding, a characteristic not found in his broadly expansive reading of the symphony.

Hampson’s attempt to reclaim Don Giovanni for the lyric baritone is done with subtlety and verve, but is only partially successful since he is saddled with a problematic conductor and colleagues.

Harnoncourt reveals no special insights into the score and some of his ideas border on perverse. “La ci darem” and the Serenade must be the slowest in memory, while the Champagne Aria is taken at such breakneck speed even the nimble baritone has difficulty.

Gruberova’s Anna is too light-voiced, and she chooses, or is forced, to begin “Or sai chi l’onore” almost as a lullaby. Alexander’s Elvira is hard pressed at both ends of the scale, with Blochwitz a heavy breathing Ottavio in more ways than one. Moll’s Commendatore is too light for proper contrast to the Don. Bonney’s Zerlina, however, is a musical and dramatic delight. Mention must be made of the ugliest, if not most repulsive, cover photo in years, which depicts the legs of the title character--one human, the other hairy and cloven.

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