Eloquent and elegant as always, baritone Thomas Hampson launched a “Schubert Week” at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin with a solo recital. Together with his longtime accompanist Wolfram Rieger, they performed Schubert Lieder that were far from mainstream and showcased the high art of this genre. 

The first part was dedicated to songs about yearning, flowing waters and drinking songs such as Am Flusse (D 160 with text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) with a virtuoso piano part; the boisterous drinking song Ihr Freunde und du, gold’ner Wein (D 183, text Alois Zettler); or the nostalgic Ach, aus dieses Tales Gründen (D 52, text Friedrich Schiller).

The pièce de résistance was the approximately 20-minute long ballad Der Taucher (The Diver) with text written by Friedrich Schiller in 1797, in which a knight dives into the sea to retrieve a golden beaker thrown in by the king; against all odds he retrieves it and recounts the mysteries of the deep, whereupon the king throws the beaker in again, promising knighthood and his daughter in marriage – but this time, the knight does not return. Hampson, justly famous for his excellent diction, used this long ballad as a consummate storyteller, with dramatic phrasing and pauses just long enough to hold his public in suspense until the bitter end.

Wolfram Rieger is an accompanist of the old school, always present and supporting but never putting himself in the foreground. His philosophy clearly is one of serving the composer, supporting the singer and communicating the mood of the words. This he does beautifully, evoking flowing and shimmering waters, the dark depths of the sea, melancholic, nostalgic or spirited sentiments.

For the second half, both artists chose songs set in ancient times, dealing with themes on how we mere humans are at the mercy of the gods, how it is impossible to guide our destinies and how we must bow to greater powers as heard in Gebet während der Schlacht (D 171), Amphiaraos (D 166) – both with texts by Theodor Körner – or the visionary An die Leier (D 737, text Franz von Bruchmann), with its words yearning for peaceful love instead of heroic battles.

No matter that Hampson’s voice faltered almost imperceptibly a couple of times, his was the passion and interpretation of a master singer who truly loves the genre and is able to communicate this love to the audience in a touching and moving performance. The very attentive public demanded encores – there were two, where Hampson also paid tribute to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose tradition he clearly continues.

This year’s Schubert Week is the first of several over the next few years, with the ambitious goal of bringing as many as possible of the about 600 Lieder composed by the young Austrian, who died far too young at age 31. During the course of the week, until 27 February, there will ten performances with various interpreters, all curated by Hampson. He will also be leading two workshops with young singers who will then have the opportunity to perform in their own recital.