Songs Sampson BIS2673

but I like to sing…
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
Jack Liebeck (violin)
rec. 2020, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, UK; 2022, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Texts and English translations included
BIS BIS2673 SACD [69]

This is a milestone release for Carolyn Sampson. It is the 100th disc on which she has featured as a soloist. Her recording career goes back, I believe, to 1999, so she has averaged about four discs per annum; that’s a considerable achievement. Her recordings have been issued by several labels but Hyperion and BIS have been those with which she’s been principally associated. For BIS she has taken part in a number of Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach recordings and, more recently, the label has issued a number of solo recital discs, all of them excellent, on which she has been partnered by pianist Joseph Middleton.

This present programme has been designed specifically to celebrate her 100th recording –

and why not? It contains a number of soprano ‘plums’, such as An die Musik, Auf Flügeln des Gesanges and Morgen; all these are most welcome. But cast your eye down the contents list and you’ll see a fair sprinkling of more unfamiliar items by composers such as Rita Strohl, Émile Paladilhe and Kaija Saariaho. Furthermore, the inclusion of songs by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Deborah Pritchard and Errollyn Wallen proves once again Ms Sampson’s determination to freshen the repertoire by giving exposure to the music of contemporary composers. It is, in short, a varied and beautifully balanced programme.

First, we hear three Lieder. In Wolf’s An eine Äolsharfe, the harp-like piano part, superbly played by Middleton, underpins a floated vocal line which is beautifully poised in this performance. An ein Veilchen has a text by Ludwig Hölty which is tinged with melancholy. However, Brahms’ music hints at optimism, a characteristic which is enhanced when sung in the way that Ms Sampson does here. Finally comes an easeful account of Schubert’s ever-popular An die Musik.

I’m delighted that space has been found for Parry’s My Heart is Like a Singing Bird. Carolyn Sampson has written the notes accompanying this disc; in them she describes the Parry song as “a burst of pure joy” and that’s how it comes across here; the bird in question soars ecstatically. Bernstein’s I Hate Music, a setting of his own sardonic words, comes as a complete contrast to the Parry. The present performance is wittily pointed. Incidentally, the title of this album is drawn from Bernstein’s text. In Something More Than Mortal Cheryl Frances-Hoad made a most unusual choice of words. As Carolyn Sampson explains, the text is drawn from letters which were written by the English mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) to Charles Babbage (1791-1871) when the two of them were collaborating in the 1830s and 1840s on his proposed mechanical computer, the Analytical Engine. In the song, which is for unaccompanied voice, the words are urgent and excited, as ss the music. Frances-Hoad very successfully conveys the sense of a mind racing.

We return to staple repertoire for Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, which is performed with charm and a suitably light touch by both artists. Much less familiar, certainly to me, is Nocturne by Joseph Marx. This was a delightful discovery for me. The vocal line soars while for most of the time the piano part contains washes of notes. Despite the very busy nature of the piano writing, it’s a tribute to Joseph Middleton’s artistry that his playing remains poetic throughout. César Franck’s song with the same title is, perhaps, closer to what one might traditionally expect from a nocturne in that the music is calmer than Marx’s. I find the Marx to be the more interesting piece but Carolyn Sampson puts Franck’s song across with great feeling.

If we may confer the status of honorary Frenchman on Franck then his song ushers in a substantial set of mélodies. Rita Strohl was a partial discovery for me. I say partial because some of her music is included on a fascinating and rewarding set of recordings of music by French female composers, Compositrices (review). Indeed, one of the songs selected by Carolyn Sampson is to be found there. That’s ‘Bilitis’, one of twelve Chansons de Bilitis which Rita Strohl composed in 1898, I believe. The other two songs which Ms Sampson has chosen were completely new to me. ‘Bilitis’ is rather unusual in that, after a brief, delicate piano prelude the singer delivers all the words unaccompanied as a kind of recitative/narrative; there’s a brief piano postlude which, I think revisits the opening music. In ‘La nuit’ much of the music has the air of what I might term subdued sensuality though there is a brief, impassioned outburst during the third of the four stanzas of poetry. Finally, we hear ‘Berceuse’, a beautiful and deeply felt expression of maternal love. It’s an exquisite song, beautifully performed. In her notes Carolyn Sampson expresses the hope that the inclusion of these three songs “will pique more interest” in Strohl’s music. I found the songs intriguing and beautiful and my interest is definitely piqued.

The French group continues with another setting by a composer who is, I believe, new to me. Ms Sampson describes Émile Paladilhe’s Psyché as “deliciously expressive”; that’s also how she performs it. It’s a gorgeous song and in this performance time seems to stand still. We’re on infinitely more familiar ground with Gounod’s Ave Maria. Middleton’s playing of the rippling, Bachian accompaniment is effortlessly smooth, as is Carolyn Sampson’s spinning of the vocal line. Familiar, too, are the mélodies of Francis Poulenc, from which have been selected the Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon. Poulenc’s setting of ‘C’ is a great song by any yardstick. This performance is very moving. ‘Fêtes galantes’ is a very different kettle of fish: it’s a bustling, helter-skelter piece. Here, it’s despatched at pace but with crystal clarity.

In a way we stay with France, or at least with the French language, for ‘Parfum de l’instant’ by the late Kaija Saariaho. This is the third of four songs grouped under the title Quatre Instants, which were written in 2002 and dedicated to Karita Mattila. It’s an elusive song and both the music and also the present performance have a fragile beauty. That fragility is enhanced by the piano writing which puts one in mind of a harp. Deborah Pritchard’s Everyone Sang is an even more recent composition; it was written specifically for this programme. It sets the well-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon. The result is aptly described in the notes as “a song that rings out with joy, but also makes space for reflection”. The music seems to me to play to the respective strengths of Sampson and Middleton. Pritchard’s music is, I think, an intelligent response to Sassoon’s words. I particularly like the way she builds up the sense of ecstasy in the closing phrases: ‘O, but Everyone/Was a bird, and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done’.

The final group winds down to the programme’s peaceful conclusion. In my opinion, two of the greatest songs written in the twentieth century were composed by Samuel Barber and Ivor Gurney. The Barber is his Sure on this Shining Night but I fully understand that wouldn’t have fitted into this programme. Instead, there is ample recompense in the choice of A Slumber Song of the Madonna; this song most definitely does fit the programme. It’s a wonderful song and here it gets a rapt performance from Sampson and Middleton. I loved it – but I would like to hear them perform Sure on this Shining Night one day. The Gurney great song is Sleep. This performance benefits hugely from Middleton’s exquisite touch, nowhere more so than in the passage that acts as a bridge between the two stanzas of John Fletcher’s poem. Carolyn Sampson spins a wonderful line. This is as fine a performance as I’ve heard of this miniature masterpiece. There’s a pleasant surprise in Strauss’s Morgen. The wonderful solo violin part that graces the orchestral version of the song is here incorporated into what I might perhaps describe as a hybrid accompaniment. The results are beguiling, especially because Jack Liebeck is on hand to play the violin line. All three artists ensure that we hear a rapt and infinitely moving performance, which is touched by greatness. When we get to the last couplet (‘Stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen / Und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen..’) I suspect that your eyes will be moist, as mine were. The closing item is Peace on Earth by Errollyn Wallen. This is a Christmas number in which the composer sets her own text. Both piece and performance have a touching simplicity, which results in a very satisfying end to the recital.

This disc is a delight from start to finish. The programme has been discerningly assembled, blending the familiar with many less well-known items. Carolyn Sampson is on effervescent form and in Joseph Middleton she has the perfect partner. I believe I’m right in saying that this is the eleventh disc they’ve made together. I’ve reviewed or bought several of them and it seems to me that they always work together extremely well, striking musical sparks off each other. So it is here.

Producer/engineer Jens Braun has recorded them expertly. The sound is beautifully balanced and very present (I listened to the stereo layer of the SACD). As I mentioned earlier, Carolyn Sampson has written the notes; her essay, like her singing, bubbles with infectious enthusiasm.

This is a treasurable disc and a fine way to bring up a century of recordings. More please!

John Quinn

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Hugo Wolf (1860-1903)
An eine Äolsharfe (Mörike-Lieder)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
An ein Veilchen, Op.49 No. 2
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
An die Musik, D 547
Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918)
My Heart is Like a Singing Bird (English Lyrics, Set 10)
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
I Hate Music (No 3 of I Hate Music; A cycle of Five Kid Songs)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b 1980)
Something More Than Mortal
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, Op.34 No. 2
Joseph Marx (1882-1964)
Nocturne (Lieder und Gesänge, Folge III)
César Franck (1822-1890)
Nocturne, FWV 85
Rita Strohl (1865-1941)
From Bilitis, poème en 12 chants
IX Bilitis
XI. La nuit
XII. Berceuse
Émile Paladilhe (1844-1926)
Charles Gounod (1819-1893) / Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Ave Maria
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, FP 122
I. C
II. Fêtes galantes
Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023)
Parfum de l’instant (Quatres instants)
Deborah Pritchard (b 1977)
Everyone Sang
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
A Slumber Song of the Madonna
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
Sleep (Five Elizabethan Lyrics, No 4)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Morgen, Op.27 No. 4
Errollyn Wallen (b 1958)
Peace on Earth