Sunday 23 May 2021

Sheer joy: Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton's Elysium at Wigmore Hall

Joseph Middleton and Carolyn Sampson at a previous Wigmore Hall concert (Photo Robert Piwko)
Joseph Middleton and Carolyn Sampson at a previous Wigmore Hall concert (Photo Robert Piwko)

- Schubert; Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 May 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A return of live audiences, Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton celebrate with a programme of Schubert

Our first live concert this year, the first song recital at Wigmore Hall since it started welcoming audiences again, so no pressure then. Rather appropriately, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton looked to Schubert for their inspiration. Elysium was a programme of songs inspired by the mythical idea of a blessed and happy eternal future, which led us from Jakob Nikolaus Craigher de Jachelutta's young nun to Friedrich Schiller's description of Elysium itself, via Goethe's Ganymede and Rückert's Du bist der Ruh.

The programme played without an interval and with just two breaks for the artists, so that with no applause between the items this really flowed with the transitions between the songs as important as the songs themselves as Sampson's intent, rapt The young nun moved straight into the rather eerie Sister's Greeting where the tension grew intense, then Goethe's Ganymede provided a joyful release. Now, I confess that I have always found this latter song and poem a bit strange; if you can get over the fact that it barely relates to the myth of Zeus abducting the young boy, then this was wonderful with its combination of urgency and purity.

Throughout the recital, Sampson sang with a silvery purity, producing some lovely line alongside fine words, and Middleton complemented her with some strongly characterised piano playing. Sampson was able to give us many different incarnations of joy and wonder, along with a sense of essential goodness and almost simplicity, yet the result when combined with Middleton's piano created a complex mix.

To the Moon (setting Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Holty) was a clear example, with Sampson's clear vocal line growing more urgent over Middleton's expressive undulations, whilst To be sung on the water was simply pure joy (and almost a dance in tempo). 

Night played a big role in proceedings whether it was raptly intent Night and Dreams, unfettered joy in The Stars or the simple beauty of To the moon (setting Goethe), and even the touching simplicity of On the day of All Souls. We had the delightful birdsong of To the nightingale, and more stars from Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze, with this group ending with exuberance of The song of the muses.

We ended with a pair of songs exploring quiet, Cradle Song and You are repose, before Elysium itself. This was something of a surprise, not po-faced at all but a vivid exploration of the delights of Elysium performed with lighthearted charm and a revelling in the sheer delight of the descriptions and was it my imagination or was there something a little operatically Weber-ish in the Schubert's music.

This was certainly not an 80 minute canter through favourite songs, there were plenty that I had not heard before and the juxtapositions were intriguing. The sheer joy which both artists seem to have in performing this music to a live audience really conveyed itself. 

There was an encore, something rather intriguing, Schubert's melodrama Abschied von der Erde.

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