LPO & Thomas Hampson Concert – 14th March

Im Sommerwind
Symphony No.3 in A minor

Thomas Hampson (baritone)

London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

I imagine Im Sommerwind comes as something of a surprise to anyone familiar with Webern’s 31 official opuses, a body of work re-defining compositional thinking; as such Webern might well be the twentieth century’s most significant composer. A rejected student piece for large orchestra, Im Sommerwind waited sixty years or so to be performed; it’s dominated by the Strauss of Aus Italien with Wagner not too far away. This 15-minute tone-poem seemed a tad more sprawling than usual under Mark Elder. While he obtained some magically quiet pianissimos, he harried the faster music, exposing the LPO’s unfamiliarity with the score; extremes of tempo emphasised the sectional construction of Webern’s transitional orchestral study. Good to hear though, but Elder needed to meld the slow-fast sections to aid Im Sommerwind’s structure. With three digital recordings – Boulez, Chailly and Dohnanyi – and recent London performances from Manfred Honeck and Ulf Schirmer, Im Sommerwind is fast becoming a repertory piece!

What Thomas Hampson lacks to my mind is an ability to pare-down both his tone and dynamics to give a truly ’inside’ rendition. This was certainly the case with Kindertotenlieder. As such Hampson sports a communicative stance, he’s a big fellow with a voice and personality to match, but he doesn’t draw me into the music. When it’s a deep subject, such as infant-death, then some sort of import needs to be perceived. Hampson, rarely suggestive of regret, bitterness and numbness, allowed the five songs to pass by without burdening Kindertotenlieder with Ruckert’s and Mahler’s sense of loss. Elder did find some moving paragraphs, but the storm of the ultimate song was no more than an impression – surprisingly, presumably deliberately, tepid.

Rachmaninov gets a bad press in some circles for being nostalgic and subjective rather than visionary. His ’from the heart’ Third Symphony is from 1936. I’m glad to have this wonderful piece, full of melody and energy, fabulously orchestrated. It certainly responds to – positively invites – a lingering, voluptuous approach (Hollywood strings to the fore; and Rach 3 does have its American aspects) but a leaner soundworld is just as potent; one is more likely to listen to the music’s argument, not ’imagine’ rolling-credits.

Elder once again favoured a sectional approach, which might have worked better if more volatility had been present. As it was he conducted a well-prepared rendition that lacked knife-edge emotional cut-and-thrust. There was incisiveness when required, particularly so in the fugal section of the last movement (which bears an astonishing similarity to the identical section of the contemporaneous Walton 1).

What I didn’t care for was Elder’s unconvincing rubato in the first movement’s second subject; nor the attention paid to accompanying woodwind detail, which led the ear away from the tune – this made the exposition repeat rather unwelcome. It was good though to hear this great piece given such an expert performance. Mark Elder clearly believes in every note, and that’s to be cherished in itself.

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