A Journey to the Soul With Hampson in ‘Winterreise’


The day sparkles--brilliant sun, cerulean sky, temperatures in the 80s. The talk at the local cappuccino hangout is BMWs, beach and screenplays. Once more Southern California makes mockery of winter, both as weather and as state of mind.

Such is the cliche of Los Angeles. But just such a day was Sunday, when baritone Thomas Hampson came to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to evoke the bleak snowy landscape of a winter’s journey in Schubert’s doom-laden song cycle “Winterreise.” And just such is the presence on stage of Hampson that he makes his own weather.

Schubert’s late cycle of 24 songs is one of the touchstones of serious repertory, not just in the literature of the art song but in all of music. It is one of those pieces--Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion is another, as is Beethoven’s String Quartet, Opus 131--that seems to get at the essential nature of human suffering and rising above it. It is the kind of work that an artist uses to define himself (“Winterreise” was written for male singers, but has, on rare occasion, been attempted by women).


“Winterreise” does not tell a story. Instead, each of the poems by Wilhelm Muller reflects the state of mind of a young man, jilted in love, who wanders through a bleak landscape questioning the meaning of life and seeing, in all things, only emptiness and death. Schubert’s genius was to make each song a window into the psyche, and through the cycle create a mosaic that captures the soul of the Romantic personality. But Hampson has found another way into the cycle that is far closer to how we, today, live in the world.

Hampson’s performance is more active than reactive. In a fascinating essay he co-wrote, he evokes an image from the Romantic Age that has remained close to the modern imagination--Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He sees the poet in “Winterreise” as a sort of Promethean figure in great disharmony with his environment and in a huge struggle to contain and understand a soul.

And Hampson brought that kind of vivid imagination to every song. He is a strong and imposing baritone, and however wide his expressive range, he always remains the extrovert. He can surely reach great outbursts of anguish when he wants to, and he can even get a little mannered in his enjoyment of such effects. But his great strength here was more in the way his voice mirrored the nature imagery so prevalent in the poetry and in Schubert’s musical evocations of wind and flower.

In bringing out the drama of storms, or picturing the cold wonder of white, barren landscapes, Hampson forced us to consider our own relationship with our surroundings, whatever they are and how they make us what we are. In doing so, Hampson’s dramatizing could get a little pushy, but it also meant that the baritone remained dramatically compelling song after song, never losing focus or momentum through what can otherwise get to be a pretty depressing 75 minutes.

Wolfram Rieger was the sensitive and fluid accompanist, but he is more old-school than Hampson. Although he kept the lid open, he kept himself very much in the background. Hampson is making a bold and original statement in his “Winterreise,” and a bold and original pianist could make it all the more potent.