Fearless performance makes this exploration of grief a searing one
LENOX -- Grief paralyzes the spirit; grieving liberates it. Thomas Hampson's recital at Tanglewood on Tuesday explored both , but the integrity of his engagement with text and music banished any maudlin sentimentality.
In the first half, Hampson and his superb pianist, Wolfram Rieger, presented Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe" ("Poet's Love"), a journey from romantic hope to despair. The work was published as a 16-song cycle, but Hampson sang the original 20-song version, as preserved in Schumann's manuscript in the Deutsche Staats Bibliothek Berlin.
Hampson's ringing baritone has thickened with age, but the singularly beautiful, dark timbre still peals forth, and the artistry and commitment are unparalleled; he remains a fearless singer, the voice always at the service of a penetrating mind. This "Dichterliebe" was extraordinary and unforgettable, emotionally wrenching and exhilarating.
Even when Hampson was not singing, his presence seared. He used Schumann's increasingly expansive piano postludes to bolster his portrayal of a descent into a spiral of disappointed dreams; Rieger's final cadences seemed to shake Hampson out of his reverie with a start.
At the end, the poet firmly vows to bury the "old, evil songs" and move on, but as the piano elides the singer's cadence into a gentle reminiscence of an earlier song, you could see Hampson's resolve collapse. Throughout Rieger's delicate solo, Hampson seemed a shell of a man, forever trapped in the past.
The Boston Symphony Chamber Players took the stage for the second half. A neat, easygoing reading of Samuel Barber's "Summer Music" for wind quintet was nevertheless so incongruous with the rest of the program that it was almost like a second intermission. Then, swelled to 16 players, they were joined by Hampson for the American premiere of a chamber arrangement of Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the death of children") fashioned by Hampson and Renate Stark-Voit.
In pre-performance remarks, Hampson explained his goal to remain as true as possible to Mahler's own full orchestration: Sections became soloists, and only some celesta and percussion parts required reallocation. If the reduction sacrificed much of Mahler's original dynamic contrast, it emphasized his ingenious instrumental combinations.
Hampson was, necessarily, more extroverted than in the Schumann. He was the de facto conductor, and the players took their cues from his physical performance. (A separate conductor could have, perhaps, engendered even more give-and-take between singer and ensemble.) Still, he convincingly traced the progression of parental grief. In the final song, a catharsis of rage gives way to a lullaby, sad but serene; unlike Schumann's poet, this mourner eventually emerges whole. Hampson's peaceful acceptance was like a benediction.