Thomas Hampson’s Desert Island Baritones

Ask him about vintage singers, and Thomas Hampson will lead you into a long and fascinating discussion. Recently, GEORGE HALL sat down with America’s leading baritone and got his critical take on a sampling of classic recordings.

I’m sitting with Thomas Hampson in the study of his apartment in a Jugendstil villa in a leafy Viennese suburb. The walls are lined with hundreds of scores, books, CDs and LPs, and a hi-fi system sits before us. Outside, a storm is raging — a full-blown Wagnerian example, with enormous hailstones, thunder and lightning, like a special effect for a particularly spectacular production of Der Fliegende Holländer.

Hampson is quietly moving around the shelves, selecting this item, rejecting that. We’re about to listen to some of his favorite baritones. I’m reminded of a British radio program called Desert Island Discs, which has been running since 1942: each week a famous personality is asked to choose the eight recordings he would salvage from the wreckage in the event of being marooned on a desert island. (When Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was the castaway, she famously chose seven of her own discs.) In this instance, Hampson selects from his forefathers, as he calls them, commenting as we listen on their voices and interpretations, and on singing itself.

Opera News | Bring on the baritones

“Il balen” (Il Trovatore) (1917)
De Luca is the king of legato, which for me is the sine qua non, but I have never heard anything by him that is not a conscious revitalization of the thoughts his character sings. You feel here an Italian tradition. Pre-1960, what they all had was this phenomenal sense of messa di voce, this swelling and expanding and bringing back the tone. For me, legato and messa di voce are what it is all about — and the vitalization of words. What is exciting with de Luca is this latent power — there’s always a feeling of something else behind it. Apparently his wasn’t a big voice, but it was always audible and absolutely free. Nice portamento, but the secret is to sing consonants. The difference between speaking and singing is that in speech we separate vowels by the consonants, but in singing we connect through consonants. The way de Luca sings through consonants is a lesson. It’s an ideal di Luna voice. The huge challenge of this aria is not to sound desperate — the constant pouring of emotion must remain calm. Di Luna is a nasty piece of work, but he’s also a wounded young man who never gets over it. You think, what pain! You have to get both sides out. I think people sometimes approach it wrong, not necessarily technically, but psychologically. It’s a tender moment, it’s a serenade, and I love the way, even at the top of his voice, [de Luca] never makes an issue out of it.

“Di Provenza” (La Traviata) (1911)
Again, legato. Battistini is a perfect example of the Italian baritone, maybe even of the Verdi baritone. There’s not a lot of variation in him sometimes, but there is variation from piece to piece. Even in the Verdi repertoire — Traviatashould not sound like Iago. This is one of the most sentimental readings that I know — a real Italian papa — for me slightly too romantic, too slow. The emotion is terribly overt when Battistini sings it — he gilds the lily a bit. The phrasing is like a long bow, with this curious Verdi staccato within the legato, which is a matter of articulation, a re-movement of the bow. But what I do marvel at is this seamless vowel-to-vowel movement that Battistini has, which was part of a tradition that every one of them lived and believed in. Battistini loved to let the voice pour.

“Dagli immortali vertici” (Attila) (1941)
This is a hell of a voice — immediately this incredible power, which is what I miss most today. We’ve gotten away from it. You get a much darker center, and this ringing freedom at the top that can only be released. But not barked! It’s all sung — every word of it. That takes such strength. We haven’t even started the aria yet, here’s this recitative, and already you think, who is this guy, what’s going on? You immediately want to know, what’s his life all about? What’s his dilemma? In this aria, there’s a growing, seething power. This is what I think Gorin does well. In all of the dramatic sound, there’s always an inherent lyric sound. I prefer that to the other way around. There’s a certain vulnerability — it takes a tremendous kind of openness to sing like that. Flawless, carved out of that Italian tradition, the binding of vowels with consonants, singing through, not pressuring, letting the voice expand, not trying to shove it some place. You don’t hear this kind of singing today — this immovable center and security in the middle of his voice, and he just goes up and down the scale.

“Promesse de mon avenir”
(Massenet, Le Roi de Lahore) (1906)
That use of the voice, that long phrase — oh my goodness, what breath control! — that’s another great secret of the old singers that has gone. Breath control is not a function of resonance. Legato is a function of resonance, and not a function of breath control. That’s the real key. What all these guys do is the phenomenal exposing of the use of resonance, which literally means the sound you hear in your head, and that you take the proper breath for. That’s as natural as speaking. To be able to draw and spin those phrases — the spinning of the voice is within itself, it’s not going anywhere, but it’s spinning, it’s alive. It’s the resonance that travels. This is an expressive, Italianate way to sing French, which I love to hear, because it’s a Frenchman doing it. There is a huge manipulation of vowel colors, very expressive in the French language, but vocally almost dangerous — a much more frontal, singing-at-you style than you got with Battistini singing “Di Provenza.”

“Di Provenza” (La Traviata) (1928)
(in German)
I love this recording. I play it often. Tell me one consonant he hasn’t sung! It’s incredibly Italian singing, it is so beautiful, how he just releases, releases, releases. In the lieder repertoire in particular, we’ve gotten so psychotic. Some things were just beautifully sung — basta, full stop, leave it alone. I would find this a very typical German voice of the prewar generation, because it’s got that high position that just borders on the nasal, but it has a grip in it. Do I want to hear Traviata sung today in German? If it’s sung like that, sure. We think we’re terribly sophisticated, but quite frankly, it’s about human emotion, and what prism that comes through at any given time is convincing because of the person singing it. The problem is not the language — the point is to sing the music correctly. I get goose bumps just listening to this. It’s a wonderful portrayal of the father. You feel that he’s singing at you, and that you’re Alfredo. It has such a power in it, but at the same time the softness melts my heart. I just adore it.

“Cortigiani, vil razza” (Rigoletto) (1940)
This is not a voice I have a lot in common with, but I love to learn from it. This is Town Hall, New York City, and he was twenty-nine years old. It’s an amazing legato, but you always hear — I don’t know whether it’s an American influence — that darker, heavier kernel that you got glimpses of with Igor Gorin. Even with the darkness and the heft, there’s still that tremendous release and tremendous legato, and even with all that power, the vulnerability that he allows to come into it. He’s totally schooled in the tradition. Listen to these huge, arcing legato phrases coming out. We’ve had his outbreak, we’ve had the scorn of Rigoletto, he’s furious and he’s desperate, because of what’s happened to his daughter. And now he realizes that it’s not getting him anywhere. Being the jester, he decides to play to their emotions — so he pleads. Grown men playing to other men’s emotions — that’s a tough walk today. That seamless legato is not because it’s stylistically interesting but because the words are saying something, and the music is about the words, and all of that is emotionally, psychologically, communicating this man’s desperate dilemma. This would break your heart.

“O du mein holder Abendstern”
(Tannhäuser) (1943)
I like the mellifluousness, the softness of the sound and the ending of his phrases. The voice is always in the same place — the resonance is very soft and continual. I love the higher resonances — that ringing, all the great baritones have it — and yet the latent power. You hear an expandability. That’s also part of the messa di voce. It’s a very natural kind of singing: let the top of the voice be the top of the voice. There’s something very non-manipulative about it. Schmitt-Walter was a big personality. People adored him. He cut a huge figure and sang with great authority. When I hear these guys like Max Lorenz, all these Heldentenors were like baritones that just went a step further. Of course that was a question for me. In another generation, and with another aesthetic mind-frame than I have, I might even have tried. The trouble is, I don’t have that extension. I don’t have those notes. I don’t have an A for sale — I have an A-flat for sale. Which means I could probably fake my way through Siegmund, I could probably do Parsifal. But if you start down that road, you can’t go back. At the turn of the last century, it was traveled more frequently.

“Il balen” (Il Trovatore) (1961)
I think he’s one of the greatest singers that ever walked, and I get so angry at this popular way of criticizing his mannerisms. He’s so astounding. There is never anything about his singing that’s not interesting. Even when it’s a sound that — I don’t think that this is his best aria. The Ballo in Maschera is in general more interesting. I thinkTrovatore is so bloody difficult. I was glad to be part of [a recording], and Tony [Pappano] trusted me, but I came out of it with my throat in a sling, thinking “God almighty, would I ever do this onstage?” And I even said, “Tony, don’t invite me, not yet.” Fischer-Dieskau makes musical decisions that are so wonderful and so right. But the end of the aria was much more interesting, because there was more abandon, more release. In the first part, you want to say, ‘Just go.’ All of this repertoire got better the older he got. It seemed to be never the issue, it was more about what he decided to sing. That, in a way, has been a guiding light for me. My life has been driven for the last four or five years by my interests, my repertoire, my aesthetic awareness, the characters that I want to recreate. He is the most perfect example of that I know. Talk about somebody deciding that this needs to be sung by him, and he lets the chips fall, and he sings it fine.

I ask Hampson why today’s singers should listen to old recordings. “To some people it’s anathema,” he says. “They think you shouldn’t, because God help you if you imitate — which I find absurd, truly absurd. It’s like someone who wants to write doesn’t read, or if you want to play basketball, don’t buy any tapes of Michael Jordan because you might jump! Of course you shouldn’t just imitate. But many times I’ve tried out things I’ve heard, because they make sense. Sometimes you feel that you’ll never sing as well as the singers you admire most. Other times you feel, ‘Well, I’ve done that justice in my way.'”

GEORGE HALL is a London-based writer specializing in opera.


Giuseppe de Luca ‘II balen’ (II Trovatore) (1917) Nimbus 7815
Mattia Battistini ‘Di Provenza’ (La Traviata) (1911)
Iqor Gorin ‘Dagli immortali vertici’ (Attila) (1941), Victor Symph. Orch., Bruno Reibold, cond.,
Maurice Renaud ‘Promesse de mon avenir’ (Massenet Le Roi de Lahore) (1906) Nimbus NI 7867
Heinrich Schlusnus ‘Di Provenza’ (La Traviata) (1928, in German). Julius Prüwer, cond. Preiser 89006
Leonard Warren ‘Cortigiani, vii razza’ (Rigoletto) (1940). WiIfrid Pelletier, cond. VAI 1017
Karl Schmitt-Walter (‘0 du mein holder Abendstern’ (Tannhäuser) (1943) Berlin Rundfunk Symphonie, Artur Rother, cond. Preiser 89305
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau ‘II balen’ (II Trovatore) (1961) Berlin Philharmonic, Alberto Erede cond. EMI 567687