Standing straight and tall, with almost military bearing, Thomas Hampson sang “I must carry the whole world!” The song was “Der Atlas,” Schubert’s setting of Heinrich Heine’s poem, but this Atlas, tragic as he was, still sounded as if he could bear the burden of the world easily. Hampson’s voice has extraordinary strength: rich and powerful throughout the lower and middle registers, clear and light through the higher register. Ably accompanied by Wolfram Rieger, Hampson gave us a masterful recital, profound and accessible, covering the full range of German lieder and American art song.
Five more of Schubert’s songs written for Heine’s poetry followed, each a surprise. In this song cycle, a lady’s portrait, a city on a foggy night, and a glimpse of a “Doppelg¤nger,” or demonic double, all bring back memories of lost love. Hampson rendered these gems brilliantly, giving each a distinct character, while combining the set into a vivid portrait of Romantic longing. Rieger, meanwhile, brought out the subtle colors of Schubert’s piano parts with extraordinary care.
The next cycle of songs, from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, was in marked contrast to Schubert’s introspective mood. This joyful set shows a young heart opening itself up to experience, and Hampson’s athletic voice sprang out into the hall to tell us about it. He included “Ging heut Morgen ¼bers Feld,” in which a bird sings back to the boy and captures the feeling of the cycle perfectly: “Isn’t it becoming a beautiful world?” In the end, the boy marches off to war, and the heartbreak we feel in the final song, “Revelge,” isn’t his-it’s ours.
After the intermission, Hampson brought us to America. As he later explained, he has been working on a project for the Library of Congress to find, catalog, and perform hundreds of songs by American composers. Each song Hampson sang, including a remarkable adaptation of an Omaha chant by Farwell, “The Old Man’s Love Song” and Steven White’s well-known “Shenandoah,” reminded us of how much history and culture America holds. We go to a recital hoping for a few songs; Hampson and Rieger gave us a country and a world.