Thomas Hampson in New York – Song of America Tour

Auf geheimem Waldespfade [ca. 1903-1909]
Zwei Könige saßen auf Orkadal [ca. 1903-1910]
Oben, wo die Sterne glühen [1881]
Weil’ auf mir [1902]
Feldeinsamkeit [ca. 1897-1898]
As Adam Early in the Morning [1957]
Ethiopia Saluting the Colors [1915]
In Flanders Fields [1917, rev. 1919]
Looking-Glass River [1909]
God Be in My Heart [1950]
Tiger! Tiger! [1951]
Sure on this Shining Night [1938]
In the Wilderness [1968-1969]
Rain Has Fallen [1938]
Night Wanderers [1935]
I Hear an Army [1936]
Songs on Poems by E. A. Robinson [1945)
An Old Song Re-sung [1918]
Grief [1935]
The Old Man’s Love Song [1908]
Memories [1897]
Danny Deever [1897]

Shenandoah [arr. White]
The Boatmen’s Dance [arr. Copland]

Thomas Hampson (baritone) & Wolfram Rieger (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 19 January, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Thomas Hampson’s Carnegie Hall Recital on Thursday, 19 January was the fifth stop on a 6-month, 11-city “Song of America” tour, which is a “shared vision” of Hampson and the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington. It also brought Hampson, joined by accompanist Wolfram Rieger, back to Carnegie’s Great Singers in Recital series, in which Hampson has been by far the most regular participant in recent years. This programme of American songs presented a very different aspect of his artistry than his most recent prior appearances in the series, which were single-composer lieder recitals featuring Wolf and Mahler.

Hampson established a warm rapport with the Carnegie Hall audience, employing humorous gestures and remarks as well as providing interesting biographical details and anecdotes about some of the lesser-known composers represented on the programme. He also delivered an impassioned plea for the preservation and wider appreciation of America’s musical heritage and urged the audience to draw upon the vast resources of the Library of Congress.

Although the recital consisted entirely of songs by American composers, there were substantial transatlantic influences in the programme. The initial group of songs were settings of German poems, and the remainder of the programme included settings of texts not only by noted Americans, but also from such poets as William Blake, James Joyce, John Masefield, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Graves.

Hampson opened the recital with five German lieder by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Edward MacDowell and Charles Ives. This genre, which had been introduced to American audiences by Jenny Lind prior to the Civil War in the 1860s, enjoyed considerable popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when American composers had yet to establish any truly American style, instead seeking to emulate European romantic traditions.

MacDowell, the first American composer to achieve international recognition, travelled to Europe in 1876 at age 15 and spent his formative years (through age 26) in Germany, where he was influenced by German folklore, poets and composers, including Brahms, Wagner, Schumann and Wolf. A generation later, Griffes followed MacDowell’s example, journeying to Berlin in 1903 at age 19 and studying there for four years. Hampson’s renditions of Griffes’s “Auf geheimem Waldespfade” and “Zwei Könige saßen auf Orkadal” and MacDowell’s “Oben, wo die Sterne glühen”, settings of texts by Heine, Lenau and Geibel, respectively, strongly evoked the romantic lieder tradition of Schumann and Wolf. (Neither of those composers is in any danger of being dislodged from his position of eminence, however.)

Ives, who was born ten years before Griffes but outlived him by nearly 35 years, was not German-educated; he graduated from Yale and then lived in New York City for nearly 20 years, working as an organist and actively composing. His “Weil’ auf mir” to a Lenau poem and his “Feldeinsamkeit”, setting a text by Allmers, lie within the same romantic tradition as the Griffes and MacDowell songs, barely hinting at the original and distinctively American voice with which Ives’s compositions would come to speak.

Hampson’s voice in this opening segment of the recital sounded rather thin at the top and rough around the edges. This was particularly unfortunate, since this portion of the programme would have benefited most from the accustomed vocal qualities that made Hampson’s recent Wolf and Mahler recitals so remarkable. Hampson’s artistry was never lacking, however, and he did seem to hit a surer vocal stride as the recital went on.

The next segment of the programme started with two settings of Walt Whitman poems: Ned Rorem’s “As Adam Early in the Morning” and Henry T. Burleigh’s “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors”, the former brief and light in texture, and the latter an extended ballad with a militaristic accompaniment, here ably played by Rieger. Burleigh, the first noted African-American composer of concert songs, was one of two black composers represented in the programme, the other being William Grant Still. As Hampson began Ives’s moving “In Flanders Fields”, he gestured above the piano strings, as if to draw up and inhale the music’s fragrance. John Alden Carpenter’s setting of Stevenson’s “Looking-Glass River” was performed with a vocal sheen that mirrored the textual references to the smoothness of the river, and Elinor Remick Warren’s “God Be in My Heart” was appropriately touching. The last song in the group was Virgil Thomson’s “Tiger! Tiger!”, setting the Blake poem that has inspired at least fifty composers, most famously Britten. Performed by Hampson and Rieger with just the right amount of drama, the Thomson setting was revealed as equal to any.

The first half of the evening concluded with a wonderful group of five Samuel Barber songs, setting the poetry of James Agee, Robert Graves, James Joyce and W.H. Davies. “Sure on this Shining Night” (Agee) is certainly a candidate for the tile of most beautiful American art song, and Hampson rendered it lovingly and delicately. “In the Wilderness” (Graves) uses gentle dissonances to paint a soft and touching portrait. “Rain Has Fallen” (Joyce) began slowly and softly, with the piano emulating raindrops, then took on a darker mood, building to a crescendo that faded away as the last line was repeated, and concluded with an affecting, descending twist on the final “heart”. “Night Wanderers (Davies) was darker in tone, as was “I Hear an Army” (Joyce) in which singer and piano portrayed the clamour of battle and then combined to express the poet’s agony at being abandoned by his beloved.

Following the interval came three songs by John Duke on poems by Edward Arlington Robinson. “Richard Cory” tells of a man whose wealth, grace and place of respect in the community made him the envy of all, but who nevertheless took his own life. Duke’s setting and Hampson’s performance succeeded in conveying the shock of this unexpected ending. “Miniver Cheevy” is a man “born too late” who drinks his life away while longing for times past, with Hampson’s gestures at the song’s end portraying Cheever’s tipsiness. “Luke Havergal” is a full-blown romantic ballad about another self-destructive character, one whose beloved has died and who is contemplating suicide in order to join her. These songs – three out of Duke’s total output of over 265 songs – amply demonstrate his talent for setting poetry to song. It is unfortunate that he has been all but forgotten, despite a long and distinguished career as pianist, composer and professor at Smith College.

The balance of the programme was titled “Old Songs Re-sung” and began, not surprisingly, with Griffes’s “An Old Song Re-sung”, an initially rollicking but ultimately macabre setting of Masefield’s poem. Next, William Grant Still’s “Grief”, to a text by LeRoy V. Brant, built to a peaceful and uplifting conclusion. This was followed by Arthur Farwell’s “The Old Man’s Love Song”, based on a traditional Omaha Indian text, and then by Ives’ rather whimsical “Memories”. Walter Damrosch’s setting of Kipling’s “Danny Deever” – said by Hampson to be Theodore Roosevelt’s favourite song – received a stirring performance, with Rieger’s accompaniment conveying the increasing intensity and quickening pace in the final stanza. The programme concluded with two traditional American songs: “Shenandoah”, in an arrangement by Stephen White, and a long-time Hampson favourite, Aaron Copland’s arrangement of “The Boatmen’s Dance”, with its rapid depictions of the dancing boatmen alternating with the echoing refrain that opens and closes the song, finally fading away as the boat sails away down the Ohio River.

Hampson closed the evening with a pair of encores: Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and Haydn Wood’s “Roses of Picardy” (which, although not by an American composer, was included since, as Hampson told the audience, it is Billington’s favourite song).

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