Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Poise, elegance and drama: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton - Reason in Madness

Reason in Madness - Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton - BIS
Reason in Madness - Brahms, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Koechlin, Debussy, Duparc, Wolf, Schubert, Saint Saens, Chausson, Poulenc; Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton; BIS Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An intelligent, intensely focused yet stylish exploration of male composers' depictions of female madness

The concept of female madness is something of a male construct, and has long fascinated men in different ways. Composers have equally returned constantly to the idea, yet bringing a variety of different reactions.

On this new disc Reason in Madness on BIS, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton explore composers' depictions of female madness with music by Brahms, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Koechlin, Debussy, Duparc, Wolf, Schubert, Saint Saens, Chausson and Poulenc, through characters such as Ophelia, Mignon and Faust's Marguerite.

The disc opens with an unaccompanied version of 'Sie trugen ihn auf de Bahre bloss' from Brahms' 5 Ophelia Lieder, written for an actress and with accompaniments which suggest Brahms intended them to be unaccompanied. The lack of piano heightens the folk-like nature of the song in Sampson's focused and concentrated performance.

Schumann's Herzeleid sets a German paraphrase of Gertrude's 'There is a willow grows aslant a brook' from Hamlet, the first of a number of settings of this scene on the disc. Schumann's response, written in 1851 not long before his own mental problems, is achingly beautiful.

Richard Strauss' Drei Lieder der Ophelia are more expressionist, more direct in their suggestion of the bi-polar nature of Ophelia's madness. Whilst these are complex songs, Sampson and Middleton bring out the lyricism too, and the second includes some impressive Zerbinetta-like skittering from Sampson before the bleached out bleakness of the final song.

Charles Koechlin's Hymne a Astarte is a far bigger piece (I felt that it might respond to a rather bigger voice), one which is highly dramatic with a thrilling piano part. Sampson brings wonderful concentration to the piece with a focus on the words. By contrast, Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, setting Pierre Louys' poems which were claimed as tranlsations Sapho, are deceptive in their simplicity. In the first we come to appreciated the flexibility of Sampson's vocal line, guided by the words. Into the neo-classical atmosphere of the opening of the second song comes strong suggestions of Melisande, whilst in the third it is the performers' clarity, purity and flexilibty we enjoy. This group then returns to Koechlin for Epitaphe de Bilitis, again neo-classical and quietly focused. Why do we not hear more of Koechlin's music?

The recital next turns to Goethe's Mignon first in Duparc's Romance de Mignon, which opens all poised elegance before rising to passion. Wolf's Mignon-Lieder are more complex. The first 'Kennst du das Land' (the same original text as the Duparc) still has the elements of a romance, but with an interesting complexity and passion. The second, 'Heiss mich night reden' is bleak and intense, whilst the third, 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt' is almost expressionist and certainly not a romance. The last song moves from aching beauty to dark intensity, yet here and throughout the group Sampson and Middleton are poised and elegant too.

We stay with Goethe but move to Faust for Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade, with the spinning standing in for so many different elements. Whilst there is no denying Sampson's commitment to the drama, she brings a lightness to the song which emphasises Gretchen's youth. Brahms' Madchenlied also references spinning, here in a lovely folk-ish piece. Schumman's Die Spinnerin, the spinning girl, is a lovely dance-inspired piece.

Saint-Saens' La mort d'Ophelie, which sets a French version of Gertrude's speech, also has a fast motif which could almost be spinning, This is a beautifully urgent and rather haunting account. Chausson gives us Ophelia herself in Chanson d'Ophelie, and we return to a finely flexble vocal line which brings out the text.

Having heard one at the opening, 'out of context', the performers now give us all five of Brahms' Ophelia songs, this time with what piano accompaniment that he wrote, though the atmosphere is still very much folk-inpsired.

With Duparc's Au pays ou se fait la guerre we leave behind explicit madness and concentrate on lamenting loss. At first Sampson and Middleton are poised and elegant, making this very satisfying to listen to, yet with the last verse Sampson is devastating. I enjoy her in French song, and would love to hear a complete Duparc recital disc.

They end this journey through male composers' depictions of female madness, with Poulenc's La Dame de Monte-Carlo, a large-scale scene setting Cocteau about an old lady who has lost everything at the gaming tables. It is a big piece, and Sampson and Middleton make ideal partners in bringing out the wit, pathos and drama in the piece, yet all with a sense of style.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloss (5 Ophelia Lieder)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - Herzeleid
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) - Drei Lieder der Ophelia, Op.67
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) - Hymne a Astarte
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Chansons de Bilitis
Charles Koechlin - Epitaphe de Bilitis
Henri Duparc (1848-1933) - Romance de Mignon
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) - Mignon-Lieder
Franz Schuber (1797-1828) - Gretchen am Spinnrade
Johannes Brahms - Madchenlied
Robert Schumann - Die Spinnerin
Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) - La mort d'Ophelie
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) - Chanson d'Ophelie
Henri Duparc - Au pays ou se fait la guerre
Francis Poulenc - La Dame de Mote-Carlo
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
Recorded January 2018 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, England
BIS BIS-2353 1CD [74:50]
Available from Amazon.

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