Friday 3 July 2015

Music for soprano and string quartet - Carolyn Sampson and the Heath Quartet

Carolyn Sampson
Carolyn Sampson
JS Bach, John Musto, Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg; Carolyn Sampson, The Heath Quartet; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Ravishing performance of a 20th century classic, paired with a new work for the same forces of soprano and string quartet

Soprano Carolyn Sampson joined the Heath Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 1 July 2015 for a striking programme of music for soprano and string quartet. Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op.10 was teamed up with the world premiere of John Musto’s Another Place setting poems by Mark Strand. Also in the programme were three chorale preludes by JS Bach, and Anton Webern’s Slow Movement for string quartet from 1905.

The Heath Quartet
The Heath Quartet
The concert started with the Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath, Cerys Jones, Gary Pomeroy and Christopher Murray) in three Bach chorale preludes. Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV731, Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Her BWV662, and In dulci jubilo BWV608. The first introduced us to the intriguing sound-world of Bach chorale preludes on string quartet. The players used minimum vibrato, which created a timbre both ancient and modern as it had elements of the viol-like to it but they used very expressive modern phrasing. The first was affecting, and quietly contemplative whilst the second prelude was more developed but with a lovely inwardness. The final one was a light textured and contrapuntal version of the familiar tune, played on the first violin with everyone going a bit mad around.

Mark Strand (1924-2014) was a Canadian-born poet; Strand said of his style, "I feel very much a part of a new international style that has a lot to do with plainness of diction, a certain reliance on surrealist techniques, and a strong narrative element”. The American composer John Musto (born 1954) set five of Mark Strand’s poems in a new cycle for soprano and string quartet, Another Place which was commissioned by the Wigmore Hall. The songs were composed soon after the poet’s death, and John Musto has chosen poems, The Coming of Light, Another Place, XVIII from Dark Harbour, An Old Man Awake in His Own Death, The End which seem to deal with the searching for another place, perhaps somewhere not of this world. Death and transition seem to hover over the cycle, but John Musto’s style is not maudlin and the whole had a certain cool rapture about it, a feeling of distancing. It was very much a song cycle, the string writing was substantial but the string parts were clearly accompanying rather than the soprano being an equal, though Carolyn Sampson was clearly very collegial in her performance with the Heath Quartet. John Musto’s music was tonal, with a vocal line sympathetically written for a singer; melodic, yet expressionist in the use of wide intervals.

The Coming of Light was evocative with a light blues hint to the edgy vocals, and some atmospheric string writing. Another Place started with a strongly constructed passacaglia which provided structure to the movement, over which Carolyn Sampson’s vocal line was hesitant and disconnected, echoing the short phrases and disjoint lines of the poem, leading to the rather eerie conclusion. XVIII from Dark Harbor started with big dramatic chords from the strings combined with a dramatic recitative from Carolyn Sampson, which developed into a complex mixture with a strong rhythmic snap it. At the end of the song there was a big change of mood which led into An Old Man Awake in His Own Death with its sense of bleakness in the awkward jumps in the vocal line. In all the vocal writing, Carolyn Sampson made the result seem effortless and wonderfully joined up, singing John Musto’s challenges with poise. It should be pointed out that John Musto is married to a singer, and has clearly taken on board the effective way to write for the voice yet still get his own ends. The final song, The End was again bluesy but with an edgy inner core, and strongly characterised string playing. In style, the piece reminded me of elements of Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten’s Cabaret Songs, not a bad mix really.

The second half began with one of Anton Webern’s early string quartet movements, written in 1905 when he was studying with Arnold Schoenberg. The writing was late Romantic, I would not have guessed Webern. Highly effective, it had reminiscences of Hugo Wolf, Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, along with hints of Arnold Schoenberg’s own Verklarte Nacht

Arnold Schoenberg's String Quartet no. 2 isn't. It starts out as a quartet, but the soprano soloist joins in the third movement. It is to the quartet what Mahler's Second Symphony is to the symphony. The quartet came at a difficult time for Schoenberg. His wife left him for his painting tutor, then returned, and the tutor committed suicide. As if this wasn't enough, his music was at a crisis point which would lead to his serial music and you can feel this happening in the quartet.

The opening movement is just about tonal, in a late Romantic way but unstable. The players of the Heaath Quartet interacted superbly and really brought out the unsettled nature of the movement. Whilst there were moments of lyrical yearning, it was constant stop start with Schoenberg never allowing the music to flow. The skittering second movement was similarly unstable, though it had its perky moments and you could sense the players having fun. And then Schoenberg brought in the popular song O du lieber Augustin, where on earth was the music going.
In the third movement the spare, lyric romantic textures was finally joined by the voice, Carolyn Sampson singing the setting of Stefan George's poem Litanei. The voice was a constant here, with the strings coming and going, commenting, rising occasionally to superb climaxes. Carolyn Sampson sang with a wonderful firm straight line as all hell broke lose round her. The ending returned to the quiet intensity of the opening and when it finished you could hear a pin drop. The final movement set Stefan George's poem Entrückung which opened with the line I feel the air of another planet, and we really were in a different, non-tonal, world. Mysterious, eerie almost, with the lyric expressionist vocal line wandering round tonality. Carolyn Sampson rose to real moments of rapture at the end, followed by an intense, highly structured coda which, finally, wrenched itself into a key but this wasn't really home.

Throughout Carolyn Sampson was ravishing, singing with pinpoint accuracy and fine straight line. She was matched always by the Heath Quartet to create an intense, lyrical yet unsettling accoung of a remarkable work. The concert was on Radio 3 on 2 July 2015, and you can hear it for 30 days on BBC iPlayer. There were two encores, Benjamin Britten's second Divertimento from the Heath Quartet and the folk song The Ash Grove from Carolyn Sampson, singing unaccompanied.

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