The baritone Thomas Hampson is a popular figure at the Salzburg Festival, having appeared there regularly since 1988, and at his Lieder recital with pianist Wolfram Rieger at the Haus der Mozart, one sensed a warm rapport between him and the audience. His programme consisted of Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 39, Dvořák’s Zigeunermelodien and Mahler’s songs based on the text of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Hampson has been great champion of Mahler’s songs and it was in these where his rich and sonorous voice and his dynamic sense of drama as an opera singer came together for a moving performance. In the second half of the recital, he sang a selection from Mahler’s settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, many of them bleak and ironic songs about the tragic lives of lowly soldiers. In “Aus! Aus!”, a poignant dialogue between a young boy who goes to war in high spirits and his girlfriend who is resigned he will not come back, Hampson brought out the contrast between the swagger of the boy and the despair of the girl. Also movingly sung was “Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz”, a tragic tale of a young soldier who ran away from his regiment when he heard the Alpine horn from his homeland and faces the firing squad. Here too, the idyllic sounds of the alpine calls (imitated in the piano introduction) and the cruel fate of the soldier are juxtaposed. The group of Mahler songs was concluded with the harrowing “Revelge”, a military march by the ghosts of soldiers led by the drummer boy. Hampson narrated the story with a dramatic arch, although I felt that Rieger could have made more of the sharp irony inherent in the piano part.

Earlier, Hampson opened his recital with Schumann’s Liederkreis, a set of twelve lieder on poems by Eichendorff. It took a few songs until Hampson was in full throttle – the first several songs lacked pace and colour, but things improved from the highly emotional rendering of “Schöne Fremde” and in “Wehmut”, Hampson brought beautifully controlled cantabile singing. The final song “Frühlingsnacht” was sung with full romantic ardour, although his high register seemed a little strained. In general, Hampson’s approach seemed to highlight the overall sentiment and tonal beauty more than the detailed nuances of text. Also, Rieger’s playing was delicate and always in perfect harmony with the voice, but on the passive side.

Interestingly, Dvořák’s Zigeunermelodien (“Gypsy Melodies”) were originally composed to the German translation of the poems by Adolf Heyduk, but later they were also published with the Czech text. On this occasion, Hampson chose to sing them in Czech and we were able to enjoy the consonant-heavy sounds of this language. Although the songs are written in a simple folk-song-like style, Hampson brought a wide range of emotions and colours from the beautiful stillness of the third song “Silent and lone the woods around” to the jolly rhythms of “Tune thy strings, o gypsy”. The most famous of the seven songs is “Songs my mother taught me”, which was sung without any hint of Victorian sentimentality, and more with a dramatic approach.

The Salzburg audience was warm and appreciative and Hampson responded with three further Mahler songs including “Liebst du um Schönheit” from the Five Rückert-Lieder.