LENOX — Richard Strauss’s “Himmelsboten,” which opened “Strauss and His World,” Wednesday’s Tanglewood recital by baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Wolfram Rieger, is one song, but might as well be six: Each stanza gets its own musical milieu. As Hampson impishly asked a sunbeam to enter his beloved’s window and kiss her breast, the melodic surge shuffled the harmonies through an entire deck of keys. Some composers create musical order as a refuge from the world’s messiness; Strauss fled into excess.
Commemorating this year’s Strauss anniversary (the composer’s 150th birthday), Hampson and Rieger fashioned eight of his disparate songs into a convincing cycle: young to old, love to loss, light to dark to light again. Among occasional drama — Hampson reached ringing, heroically hopeful heights in “Heimliche Aufforderung,” as well as “Sehnsucht,” with its similarly grand (if more equivocal) trajectory — the dominant mood was lush and languorous, a “velvet thread through the graying dusk,” as “Traum durch die Dämmerung” put it.
Hampson’s is a detailed art, every note, every word considered and interpreted. He is also a risk-taker, making decisions on the basis of poetic immediacy rather than vocal safety. Most moments worked, often breathtakingly: the sudden, ghostly shudder on the final note of “Die Nacht,” or the sustained fragility of “Morgen.” (Rieger matched Hampson for closely attentive polish, producing crystalline, delicate precision throughout.)
The second half placed Strauss among contemporaries (Alexander Zemlinsky; pre-atonal Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern; Alma Mahler, giving Strauss the most run for his money, with her splendidly atmospheric “Die stille Stadt”), all setting poems by the quintessentially late-Romantic Richard Dehmel. It was another opportunity to appreciate Strauss’s extravagance — in this case, in the service of Dehmel’s “Befreit,” Hampson journeying from smooth, sonorous epiphanies to pealing, hall-filling power, then all the way back to startling intimacy.
Strauss’s closest colleague, Gustav Mahler, closed the concert: four of his five songs to texts by Friedrich Rückert. (The outcast, “Liebst du um Schönheit,” was restored, along with Mahler’s “Rheinlegendchen,” as an encore.) Mahler’s comparatively classical restraint was, again, a contrast. But “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”), sung and played with uncanny, exquisitely controlled hush, might have been a portrait of Strauss himself, his decided (and, as in his dealings with the Nazis, sometimes dismaying) diffidence recast as pure musicality. “I live alone in my heaven,” Rückert concludes, “in my love, in my song.”
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.