In an evening characterized by excellent partnership and wonderful programming, longtime partners in song, baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Wolfram Rieger presented works by Liszt, Meyerbeer, Chausson, Saint-Saëns, Rossini, Mahler and Dvořák at Vienna’s Konzerthaus.

Thomas Hampson © Lukas Beck | Konzerthaus
Thomas Hampson
© Lukas Beck | Konzerthaus
A thoughtfully constructed set of German songs by Franz Liszt opened the evening. With few exceptions, Liszt’s some 80 odd vocal works have found only an uneasy place in the Germanic Lied repertoire. His settings of text is not always organic, and the liberties he often takes in terms of text repetition are extensive. The bigger issue when it comes to Liszt and song, however, seems to be that it is difficult to characterize his style. Liszt was a chameleon musician, instantly able to grasp and ameliorate the various musical styles of his day, and as a well-travelled cosmopolitan was at home in the musical idioms of Paris as well as throughout Italy and the Austro-Hungarian realm. He set songs in numerous languages, and his rhapsodic, through-composed style is more reflective of the ballad tradition than of a Schubert Lied.

Hampson and Rieger opened with three of his Heine settings, the first two parallel settings better known from Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Op.24 collections, respectively, and the third a dissonant, embittered outcry against love and art.  The duo were very much of one mind throughout the set, and both also enjoyed moments of individual brilliance. Hampson took some particularly interesting risks at the end of Es rauschen die Winde, a dark Rellstab setting where spring’s love and life is extinguished by cold, blustering winds. Rieger was a study in variety of articulation and touch – from his beautiful postlude in Im Rhein, im schönen Strome to the colorful, virtuosic showpiece which ended the Liszt set, Drei Zigeuner.

A multi-lingual grouping including lesser-known gems by Meyerbeer, Rossini, Massenet and Saint-Saëns followed. Meyerbeer's Menschenfeindlich (Misanthropic), characterized by brisk triplet runs in the piano and marked by a surprising low A for the voice to close was a refreshing opener, though Hampson’s is not really the bass the score demands. Another parallel setting from Dichterliebe followed, Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, a slowermore melodic version compared with Schumann’s setting. Rossini’s L’ultimo ricordo and Massenet’s Les Yeux Clos both gave Rieger a chance to catch his breath with their simple, chordal accompaniments and melodic, haunting vocal lines.

Hampson’s beautiful and universally recognizable vocal timbre served him well through Chausson's melancholy Le temps des lilas and Le chevalier Malheur. The latter, an amazing poem by Verlaine, describes the visit of the knight “Misfortune” who pierces the heart of the protagonist with his lance, then reaches inside and painfully kills his old heart. To the protagonists’s surprise – an astonishment reflected in musical transformation - a new heart, “pure and proud” grows in its place.

Thomas Hampson © Kristin Hoebermann
Thomas Hampson
© Kristin Hoebermann

With the wink of an eye, Saint-Saëns’ Le pas d’arme du roi Jean (St John’s Tournament) and his catchy Danse macabre lightened the mood and sent us whistling into the intermission. Hampson, though not always completely on top of his French texts, never seems to forget for a moment what he is singing about. This attention to delivery, effective interpretation and intelligent programming is what make the Hampson/Rieger duo such a consistently beloved force in concert.

Themes of nature, love and loss continued into the second half, with works of the composer with whom Hampson’s name is perhaps most closely linked, Gustav Mahler. The beautifully constructed set, including selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a youthful composition Frühlingsmorgen and even Ging heut morgen übers Feld from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen traced love from its infatuated beginnings – a lover gently cajoling his sleeping sweetheart to wake – all the way to its tragic end in Nicht Wiedersehen.

The final set, Dvořák’s Zigeunerlieder, was an interesting choice to end the concert. A brilliant blend of haunting harmonies and bombastic virtuosity, this was the set that both impressed me thoroughly but also came apart ever so slightly. Rieger played the outside, virtuosic numbers with lissome fingers and perfect support for his partner. Though some of the tempi felt a bit quick, he cannot be faulted in any way, consistently bringing out everything which needs to be heard without ever loitering in his own tempi or sound. Hampson, for his part displayed gorgeous Lautmalerei and was particularly effective in the atmospheric Rings ist der Wald. He did, however, show increasing signs of vocal fatigue in the set, completely losing steam in the very final phrase, an unfortunate end to such an otherwise strong recital. Thankfully, the pair gave the final Dvořák song another stab as their first encore, and were called back once more thereafter, offering Mahler’s Erinnerung.