Thursday, 31 October 2019

Taking soundings: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, 'Four Last Songs'

A rare but welcome concert outside London for me, this, as I took the bus to my old university town and paid a flying visit to catch just one of the gigs in the Oxford Lieder festival. As regular readers of the Specs blog will know, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton are one of my 'favourite bands' - no recital duo has kept me so consistently enthralled, fascinated and delighted as these two. With the promise of hearing them perform the famous 'Four Last Songs' by Strauss - not on any of their CDs (yet!), and so much more familiar in their orchestral versions - this was unmissable.

In the event, the Strauss was the finale to a generous and richly varied selection of art song. The evening began in epic mode, with Haydn's 'Arianna a Naxos', a continuous suite of four songs taking us through Ariadne's gradual realisation that she has been abandoned by Theseus. The rest of the first half comprised four early songs by Schoenberg (Op. 2), and two songs from Mahler's 'Das Knaben Wunderhorn' contrasting 'heavenly' and 'earthly' life.

After the interval, we took a detour from lieder into melodies, specifically a sequence based on Louÿs's 'Bilitis' poems, with two settings by Koechlin bookending Debussy's three 'Chansons de Bilitis'. Finally, we heard the Strauss: not only the 'Four Last Songs', but a beautiful encore rendition of 'Morgen!'


I realise that was a somewhat dry, list-based description: but I wanted to quickly lay before you the embarrassment of riches ... And also, I think, to get across what an affecting and sublime experience this was, it's more pertinent to 'range across' the repertoire and keep sight of how all the material made for a perfect fit. Transporting in all senses: not just that feeling of uplift you get from the finest music or art, but also a sense of profound change, that you end the concert in a slightly different place, emotionally and - yes - intellectually, from where you started it. Talking about 'journeys' in this way - those of the heart and mind - might seem like a well-worn cliche by now, but sometimes that's simply what it is: you know that you've somehow travelled.

Previously, I had heard the duo perform recitals that generally matched or showcased particular discs. However, the overall theme of Oxford Lieder in 2019 was 'Tales of Beyond: Magic, Myths and Mortals'. Accordingly, they had assembled a mix of old and new - I understand that the Strauss, at the very least, is planned for a future recording project, while the Bilitis sequence was a highlight of their last release, the superb 'Reason in Madness'. However, as CS explained onstage, the programme as assembled for this gig explores the theme of heaven and earth: how they interact, how they differ.

This ability to choose and sequence sets of songs that just 'click' has been a feature of Sampson and Middleton's work right from the start of their collaboration. On this particular evening, more than the overall theme providing a sense of unity, there was also a deliberate build-up in intensity.

I spoke of journeys earlier, and it seems to me that, particularly since increasing her focus on art song around five or so years ago, Carolyn Sampson has partly been on an exploratory voyage 'into' her voice. I've always appreciated the combination of precision and purity she's rightly renowned for as a Baroque specialist, and the way she brings those qualities intact to art song performance is thrilling. However, in the close quarters and splendid acoustic of St John the Evangelist, I was more alive than ever to the way she inhabited each song and gave life to their characters with an ever-increasing variety of timbres and colours, accessing rounder, 'lower' tones as she stepped up the sensuality, and built at various points to moments of devastating volume and power (Schoenberg's 'Erhebung', say, or Koechlin's 'Hymne à Astarté'). The performance also underlined her skills as an actor-singer, her gestures and body language raising each song into its own miniature drama.

Joseph Middleton is the perfect partner throughout. An extraordinarily versatile collaborative pianist, he seems able to provide a 'through voice' for any array of styles - a look back at the duo's debut CD, 'Fleurs', reminds one how he and CS bring a sense of unity to a mix of so many composers. I've always loved hearing him play Britten, for example, the touch and control making instant sense, for me, of music that can seem so unpredictable or fractured. His playing has helped me to draw connections that I might never otherwise have done: in the Oxford concert, for example, I was struck how the piano seemed to 'dance through' the voice in both the Schoenberg and Debussy.

Their approach reached fulfilment in the Strauss. CS sang with delicacy and passion, and JM managed to achieve a truly 'orchestral' feel. But while a song like 'September' can feel so sumptuous in its full arrangement, here the duo avoided the sense that a piano/voice version was in any way a reduction. Quite the contrary - they laid the songs bare to some extent, the emotion more exposed, a crucial note of fragility, the complete absence of grandstanding, that befitted the work's valedictory nature. I was aware of myself applauding in an almost out-of-body sense - but at the same time, I was quite overcome, processing, not wanting to exit my suspended state for a short while. I knew I had been at a masterclass.

Enhancing this feeling were in fact all manner of 'suspended states': the programme was finely spun between heaven and earth; myth and reality; desire and separation; life and death... all taking place in a holy building now mostly given to the secular arts. An evening of exquisite tension, then resolution.


After every concert by CS and JM, I'm inevitably drawn back to what is already a handsome body of recorded work. As it builds, it occurs to me that they're taking their listeners on continuous voyages. Their joint programming instincts are certainly giving fans like me an education: their ability to draw together such a variety of material under compelling overall themes has meant I've been introduced to so many corners of the canon I may never have found a map to otherwise. Equally, CS - particularly on the most recent two discs, 'A Soprano's Schubertiade' and 'Reason in Madness' - is mining a rich seam on the treatment and experience of women as characters and protagonists in art song, and I'll be fascinated to see if and how this overarching motif might continue. I cannot recommend their CDs highly enough - here's a page where you can browse them all and listen to samples, courtesy of a highly reputable retailer.

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Post-script: I've penned this write-up of the concert after recovering from a Terrible Cold. A few nights ago, I was feeling both rotten, yet strangely upbeat (could've been the drugs!) - but I couldn't face an evening full of screen work. As a result, I carried out an experiment of sorts, talking into my phone (totally unscripted, utterly unprepared) - partly about the gig, but also about the wider 'road trip', and how I felt about visiting my alma mater. If you're curious, and like your concert chat seasoned with ramblings about fearing nostalgia and battling oversized kettles, please feel free to watch it on this page. But the detail is in the piece above.

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