Thomas Hampson: a man obsessed by Mahler

Hampson and Mahler go together like Callas and Verdi. So what's the American baritone to do when the music stops?

Thomas Hampson has a problem. The American baritone has been so closely identified with Mahler's songs in orchestral concerts and recitals over the last couple of years, he doesn't know what to do next. "If you take Mahler out of my repertoire, I'm sunk," he says. "It'll be like: 'Aw shit, back to Schumann!'" Last year marked 150 years since Mahler's birth, this year is a century since his death, so Hampson is going to have to face those Mahlerian withdrawal symptoms soon. On Monday, he gives one of his last mostly‑Mahler recitals at the Wigmore Hall in London, a crowning moment of his relationship with the composer whose music has defined his career.

Hampson and Mahler go together like Callas and Verdi. Ever since his early recordings in the 1980s with Leonard Bernstein, Hampson has had a Mahler obsession that has made him not just one of the composer's leading interpreters, but a scholar, editor, and forensic detective of the microscopic detail of his original scores and first editions. He even turned his hand to conducting on his most recent disc of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs with the Wiener Virtuosen, a group of Hampson's Mahlerian mates from the Vienna Philharmonic.

All of which is a bit weird for someone who grew up in Spokane, Washington, light years away from Mahler's cultural universe. How did Hampson first get the Mahler bug? "It didn't start until after my training, when I was doing some teaching at community colleges in the States. I was driving to a lesson, and because I had been assigned some Mahler songs to teach, I popped the cassette of the First Symphony in the car. And I realised 10 minutes later that I was driving about 25 miles an hour. On the freeway. My head was just having this LSD kind of trip with this music. So I pulled into a rest-stop to listen a little bit – and I just couldn't move. I sat there for 40 minutes listening to the symphony. I arrived late for the class, and when I told them why, it was cute, because they understood how Mahler could have that effect on me. And we all started sharing our epiphanal Mahler moments."

Hampson's next epiphany was auditioning for Bernstein. "It was actually supposed to be for a Puccini project, and he said: 'What else ya got?' and I sang him some Mahler. I finished the song and he just kept staring, and finally he took a puff on his cigarette and said: 'How do you know how to do that?'" Hampson was Bernstein's Mahler singer of choice for the last years of his life. "What I learnt from Lenny was that you have to give everything you know for that one moment when you're singing. And if that applies to anything I've done in my life, it's Mahler."

What makes Mahler's songs so demanding for Hampson is their distillation of a cosmos of emotion and expression. He describes them as dialogues between the singer and the orchestra or the pianist, rather than a sung melody and an accompaniment. "People talk about Mahler's life and say he had a 'brush with death' in 1901. But I don't think anything 'brushed' Mahler: it either went completely inside his DNA or it didn't exist for him. So that year when he almost died, he wrote all of the Rückert songs and three of the five Kindertotenlieder. Those songs aren't about eulogising dead children, but about synthesising the external world with Mahler's internal world."

That synthesis is mirrored in Hampson's performances: "I'm just grateful that my abilities and experience are at an apex at Mahler's centenary. I'm very lucky." The Wigmore Hall audience will be, too.


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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