Friday 1 May 2015

Carolyn Sampson at Rhinegold Live

Joseph MIddleton and Carolyn Sampson, Rhinegold Live at Conway Hall - © Ceri Wood Photography
Joseph Middleton and Carolyn Sampson,
© Ceri Wood Photography
Schumann, Roger Quilter, Britten, Faure, Strauss, Hahn and Chabrier; Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton; Rhinegold Live at Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 29 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Launch of Carolyn Sampson's new disc at the free rush-hour concert series

On Wednesday 29 April 2015, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton launched their CD Fleurs (released on the BIS label) at a concert at Rhinegold Live, the free rush-hour concert series from Rhinegold Publishing. Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton performed a selection from the CD before a packed audience at Conway Hall, before doing a short Q&A with the editor of Opera Now magazine, Ashutosh Khandekar. All the songs on the disc are flower related, selected from a wide range of composers, and at the concert Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton gave us songs by Schumann, Roger Quilter, Britten, Faure, Strauss, Hahn and Chabrier.

Before the concert, there seemed to be a real buzz to the atmosphere as people chatted over their complimentary glass of wine (courtesy of Vats Wine Bar), and this carried over into the concert. Afterwards Carolyn Sampson signed copies of her CD for the audience.

They opened with Schumann's Röselein which started with a just a thread of voice, unaccompanied, sung with silvery tone. Full of charm, there was something nicely considered about Carolyn Sampson's approach, with great attention to the words. In fact, throughout the recital it was noticeable how Carolyn Sampson combined a feeling for the text, with a lovely sense of line.

Carolyn Sampson introduced the programme briefly, and spoke throughout the recital introducing the groups of songs and talking about how and why they had been chosen. We also got chance to notice that another of Rhinegold Publishing's senior editorial staff was on duty, as Kimon Daltas, editor of Classical Music, was turning pages for Joseph Middleton.

Joseph MIddleton, Carolyn Sampson, Jens Braun, Ashutosh Khandekar at the Q&A after the concert, Rhinegold Live at Conway Hall - © Ceri Wood Photography
Joseph Middleton, Carolyn Sampson, Jens Braun, Ashutosh Khandekar
at the Q&A - © Ceri Wood Photography
Roger Quilter's Damask Roses followed, setting a 16th century text, short and delightfully shaped. Britten's The Nightingale and Rose setting Pushkin in Russian took Carolyn Sampson into rather new territory as the song was originally written for Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Britten evokes the silence of the gardens with an atmospheric piano introduction, beautifully rendered by Joseph Middleton. The vocal line was edgy (in the right way) yet exotic, with the two performers making the song slightly unnerving; strong stuff indeed. We relaxed after this with Faure's delightful Les roses d'Ispahan, with Carolyn Sampson singing with a relaxed yet seductive line.

Next came Richard Strauss's Flowermaidens, with Das Rosenband and the four songs from Mädchenblumen. Carolyn Sampson started Das Rosenband with quite slim lined tone, but allowed the voice to really open up, giving us a greater richness of timbre as the song developed and a lovely floated top note. I made the mistake of reading Felix Dahn's poetry for Mädchenblumen and perhaps it would have been better if I hadn't, characterising women as flowers its coy archness and saccharine quality certainly does not translate well. But there was much to enjoy in the music. With Kornblumen (Cornflowers) we started with a little bit of rapture, then in Mohnblumen (Poppies) there were vivid hints of Zerbinetta. Epheu (Ivy) was still but with a sense of strong interior life. Joseph Middleton brought out the watery beauty of the piano in Wasserose (Waterlily) with rather an exotic cast to the vocal line.

From Strauss and Dahn's dodgy view of women, we moved to a group of Friedrich Rückert settings by Schumann. Jasminenstrauch was a pert delight. Carolyn Sampson is a very communicative mobile performer, with facial expressions being important. Very much a live artist, in this song I was very aware that hearing and seeing her was a very different, richer, experience to listening to the CD. Die Blum der Ergebung was all calm and beautifully crafted lines, with lovely floated top notes. Though Rückert's text is far better quality than Dahn's, reading it (The flower of submission) I was struck by its suggestion of calm, female pliancy. Schneeglockchen was beautifully expressive and nicely considered, with a lovely evocation of snow in the piano.

In her introduction Carolyn Sampson said that despite having made over 50 records, this was her first classic song recital with piano, and that it was an important step, the first time she had been let loose on all this repertoire. She also commended pianist Joseph Middleton, commenting that with whom you made the first step was important.

Joseph MIddleton and Carolyn Sampson signing discs after the concert, Rhinegold Live at Conway Hall - © Ceri Wood Photography
Joseph Middleton and Carolyn Sampson
signing discs after the concert, © Ceri Wood Photography
The final group were all French songs, opening with Faure's Le papillon et la fleur (setting Victor Hugo). Light and fluffy, this was a charming waltz with much delight in the piano. It was followed by the magic calm of Reynaldo Hahn's Offrande. Finally Chabrier's Toutes le fleurs setting poetry by Edmond de Rostand (clearly Rostand didn't know either of my grandmothers. His line, Tes cheveux aux blondeurs de the (Your hair as fair as tea) would not apply to the sort of tea that they brewed). The song itself, a long litany of flowery delights, might have been intended as a bit of a send up by Chabrier, but in fact came over as an ardent delight.

We were treated to an encore, Debussy's Green, his very different setting of the same Verlaine poem as Hahn and a hint of delights to come as Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton are planning a follow up disc of French songs.

At the Q&A afterwards, Carolyn Sampson explained that the programme exploited the development of new colours in her voice which she was been waiting for, for 20 years! Joseph Middleton explained that the selected the programme by simply sight-reading through a huge file of songs that he had selected on the flowery theme. For him it is very text led programme, and you can find theme linking the songs in the various different groups.

Also on the platform was Jens Braun the record producer who was in charge of the record. He said that capturing a voice on disc was not easy, but that luckily they had four days of recording in which to try things out and experiment. Carolyn Sampson commented that very small things can make a difference to the sound, and she mentioned one passage where they chose a take where she had been smiling, which brought personality to the sound. Joseph Middleton added that they were very keen to try to make the disc so that it sounded as if it could be live.

Not everyone liked the new developments in Carolyn Sampson's voice. Whilst the sense of line and purity of tone is still there, her use of vibrato certainly incensed one of my friends in the audience, but there was also a very real feel of an artist exploring new territories and discovering new areas in their art. Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton have already performed this repertoire a lot together, and there are plans for further exploration with lots more recitals. And not only a new CD, Carolyn Sampson hinted at a new French operatic role as well. Much to look forward to.

The recital was videoed and will be available on the Rhinegold Live website, and in fact they are putting up videos of many of the previous Rhinegold Live recitals.

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