As comfortable with the operatic roles of Verdi and Wagner as he is with Lieder, Thomas Hampson, the renowned American baritone, joined forces with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta last night for a fascinating exploration of early- and late-romantic German art songs in Dublin’s National Concert Hall. Hampson established the Hampsong Foundation a decade ago in order to “promote intercultural dialogue and understanding” through the art of song, and judging on last night’s performance this deep and sonorous baritone showed the audience how profoundly he can communicate through song. Founded in 1988, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta comprises 22 musicians who perform without a conductor, but who are very much inspired and guided by the artistic direction of the first violinist Candida Thompson. The collaboration between singer and orchestra was as satisfying as it was musically sensitive.

Thomas Hampson © Dario Acosta
Thomas Hampson
© Dario Acosta
Hampson is recognised for his thoughtfully constructed programmes, and last night’s programme was no exception to this. There were two pieces for orchestra alone: Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht to open the concert and Wolf’s Italienische Serenade  as the second piece after the interval. While roughly contemporaries (Wolf being 14 years the senior), the styles of Schoenberg and Wolf differ immensely, something that was reflected clearly in these two works. The intense and passionate lyricism of Verklärte Nacht contrasted most effectively with the breezy effervescence which imbues most of the Italienische Serenade. These orchestral pieces were largely indicative of the mood of each half too: Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”), the only other piece of the first half, exude a gravely introspective mood. Continuing this brooding sentiment, Barber’s Dover Beach opened the second half. A lighter and jauntier mood ensued with Schubert’s Geheimes and Wolf’s Auf einer Wanderung and Der Rattenfänger.

The opening of the concert, and to my mind the highlight too, was Verklärte Nacht. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta produced an arresting performance that balanced powerful, dramatic tension with the score’s sensual lyricism and textural colour. Thompson led the orchestra with great sensitivity as the music, at times, trembled with nervous tension; at other times, darts of rising hysteria led to fierce tremelandos. It was the coherence and unity of these musicians which impressed me the most: there was excellent communication between the sections, which meant that the musical vision of Thompson was clearly felt and shared by all. This was most evident in the slow, moving passage between the principal violinist and violist. At the moment when the night was transfigured, the muted first violin broke out into a paean of joy, wonderfully illustrating the lover acceptance and forgiveness of his beloved’s failings. The lapping pianissimo arpeggios of the violins at the end were nothing short of magical.

Brahms wrote Vier ernste Gesänge shortly before his death, in 1896. These four songs are a brooding meditation on impending death. The first three are taken from the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes and Sirach) and focus on the transience of life and mortality, while the fourth is from the New Testament (1 Corinthians) and deals with charity. Possessing a mellifluous, resonant voice, Hampson captured this lugubrious mood well. Both orchestra and soloist listened intensely to one another and phrased as one. In the second song, “Ich wandte mich”, Hampson’s sotto voce singing still carried to the back of the hall, compelling us to listen to the very end of his notes.

Barber’s Dover Beach was the only non-German piece on tonight’s programme, and it was sung with the heartfelt subtlety of a fellow countryman. Hampson portrayed the melancholy and bleakness inherent both in Barber’s music and Matthew Arnold’s poem.

A brief and light hearted Italienische Seranade by Wolf instantly dispelled the foreboding mood of the previous pieces. The dialogue between the different sections of the orchestra was scintillating and at times playful, the energy rippling through the orchestra. There was a prelapsarian quality to the music in “Fussreise” and Hampson immediately changed the tone of his voice to reflect this.

The last four works, all orchestrated by David Matthews, were premièred last night. Here, Hampson started to direct the orchestra slightly more noticeably with his hands – at times turning to the violins, at other times beckoning the cellos. While it was reasonably subtle and sporadic conducting, I was not quite convinced as to why he needed to do so towards the end of the concert, the Sinfonietta having proved themselves splendidly sensitive in the accompaniment up until this point. Nonetheless, there were some fine moments of flirtation in Schubert’s Geheimes, while Wolf’s Rattenfänger had all the drama and story-telling necessary for a successful pied piper. It was given an added theatrical element at the end by Hampson deliberately putting on his spectacles and glaring around. Three encores followed from Wolf, Mahler and Schubert, much to the delight of the audience.

****1