Sampson Explores English Poetry in Song

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WALTON: A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table. 3 Façade Settings. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Orpheus With his Lute. The Sky Above the Roof. Silent Noon. BRIDGE: Go Not, Happy Day. When Most I Wink. Adoration. Come to Me in My Dreams. When You Are Old. Mantle of Blue. Love Went A-Riding. WATKINS: Who Called Love Conquering. Wants. Love Songs in Age. Money. Dawn. QUILTER: Dream Valley, Fair House of Joy. By a Fountainside. Arab Love Song. Autumn Evening. My Life’s Delight / Carolyn Sampson, sop; Joseph Middleton, pno / Bis SACD-2413

Carolyn Sampson, the British soprano with the crystalline voice, here gives a recital focusing as much on the poetry of English writers as on the music presented. Poets Thomas Jordan, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Charles Morris, William Shakespeare, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Keats, Matthew Arnold, W.B. Yeats, Padraic Colum, Mary Coleridge, Philip Larkin, Ben Jonson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Arthur Maquarie, Thomas Campion and Edith Sitwell—the great, the near-great, and a few not well known outside England—are all represented here along with a few poems by that most prolific of writers, Anonymous. She is joined in this endeavor by Joseph Middleton, an excellent pianist who is able to match the singer’s (and the poem’s) every mood.

To my ears, Sampson’s vibrato has gotten a bit looser than in earlier years, but it is still a lovely and attractive voice with moderately good diction and plenty of “character.” The opening song in Walton’s cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor, “The Lord Mayor’s Table,” also shows that Sampson has retained her easy facility in fioratura, being able to negotiate the trickiest passages (as also in “The Contrast”) easily, while the second, “Glide Gently,” shows off her smooth legato despite the now more pronounced vibrato in her voice. I have only one complaint, and that is of the sonics. The album sounds as if it had been recorded in an empty railway station at 3 in the morning with the microphone set four feet over the head of both soprano and pianist. Alas, this disc is not alone in this defect; both Naxos and Bis seem morbidly fascinated with too much reverb in their classical recordings, on which I have commented several times in this blog. Rather less echo next time around, please!

By the time we reach Vaughan Williams’ “Orpheus With His Lute,” Sampson’s voice is under much better control, the vibrato now generally more even. Either she warmed up or it was recorded on a different day. I’ve always been a little disappointed that many of Frank Bridge’s songs come from his earlier, less interesting late-Romantic period, but Sampson does a fine job on them as well.

For me, personally, the most interesting music on this disc was that by Welsh composer Huw Watkins (b. 1976) which, though still lyrical and essentially tonal, has some very interesting harmony in the piano part, often moving chromatically up or down behind the singer. “Money” was particularly interesting in its use of both harmony and rhythm.

Quilter’s songs, also late Romantic, are nonetheless sometimes interesting in their construction. I particularly liked “Fair House of Joy” and “Autumn Evening” almost sounds like a modern-day madrigal. We end with Walton’s “sung” settings of three of the Façade poems, the music quite different from the ones in which the vocalist just recites the poems to rhythm.

All in all, a nice recital of some older British music set to some interesting poetry, very nicely sung and played.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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