This recording is now over 20 years old, and Thomas Hampson has been since such a ubiquitous figure in American musical life that we have perhaps taken him for granted. He was 36 at the time of this recording, and to my ears he has never sounded better (though, to his credit, he never sounds bad!). This is volume 14 in the pianist-scholar Graham Johnson's Hyperion Schubert Edition, and it consists of songs inspired by texts about Greek antiquity. The best known, perhaps, are "Die Gotter Greichenlands" ( a lament for the beautiful world, now gone, of the ancient Greeks and their gods) and "Gruppe aus dem Tartarus" ( a chilling picture of damned souls in pain). Both are sung with great beauty of tone and superb diction, and both piano and voice are very present in the aural picture and sound great. Compare with the versions of the fine baritone Simon Keenlyside (made when Keenlyside was about the same age as Hampson) and the greater depth and richness of Hampson's tone are striking -- and there's nothing wrong with Keenlyside's versions. I found some songs that I didn't know that impressed me: "Memnon" is a beautiful song, and so is "An die Leier," a singer's complaint that his lyre refuses to sing the heroic songs and will instead sing only of love. Then there's "Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren," a boatman's prayer for calm seas directed to the two star-deities, the Dioscuri, who watch over sailors. It's as memorable and beautiful as anything in the recital.
The songs come from different stages in Schubert's life, and some are less interesting, but none is routine and all are sung with total commitment, even the 18-minute narrative "Uranien's Flucht." It would be a bold singer who would program it, but it's lucid and well-sung and accompanied, even if what one mostly remembers about it is its length. Some settings have the air of accompanied recitative rather than songs, but they have their own drama, and there are two duets, one for Hector and Andromache and one for Oedipus and Antigone (both with Marie McLaughlin helping out). And so one could go on. Hampson sings it all wonderfully, and Johnson's accompaniment is superb. I should also mention the booklet notes -- all by Johnson, with an essay both musical and historical on every song. So this is a scholarly joy as well as a musical one. Lovers of great singing needn't hesitate.