In concert – Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton: The Contrast

Carolyn Sampson (soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Friday 14 February 2020 (lunchtime)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Marco Borggreve

Once best known for her interpretations of Baroque music, Carolyn Sampson is revelling in the world of song. With musical partner Joseph Middleton painting pictures from the piano, she has made a number of attractive releases for the BIS label – of which The Contrast is the latest.

This Wigmore Hall concert doubled as the album launch event, and was programmed with a wide range of responses to settings of English text. The pair began with Sir William Walton’s multi-poet cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, reminding us just how different London was when this was written in 1962. The balance was tricky in The Lord Mayor’s Table itself, where there is a lot going on in the piano part, but Sampson carried her line with verve. Her accent on Wapping Old Stairs was well judged for subtly comedic effect, while Holy Thursday cast a spell and Rhyme ended the cycle with a flourish.

The songs of Roger Quilter can really blossom in the right hands, and Sampson sang this selection of five beautifully. The flowing My Life’s Delight and softer By a Fountainside showed off her natural delivery, Middleton responding with lovingly caressed accompaniment. Dream Valley was a beautiful reverie as dappled sunlight shone across the Wigmore Hall, while the Arab Love Song was urgent and fleet-footed, while Fair House of Joy ended the selection with a winning smile.

Huw Watkins wrote his Five Larkin Songs for Sampson, and was present for this powerfully affecting performance. The challenge of setting Larkin’s occasionally bleak verse is realised with music of passion and dramatic impact, and as she said from the stage, Sampson clearly loves to sing the songs. The wandering piano line of Who called love conquering? contrasted with the awkward shifts in the soprano line, both of which were handled extremely well. Sampson’s ringing delivery brought expressive power to Love Songs in Age, as did her instinctive use of vibrato. The end of Larkin’s wry poem Money, ‘it is intensely sad’, left a strong aftertaste, while Dawn showed a hint of Britten in its setting. The delivery of the last line, ‘How strange it is for the heart to be loveless, and as cold as these’, made an impression with its completely (and deliberately) flat tone.

Finally we heard five songs from Frank Bridge, whose contribution in this area is still underrated. That is in spite of heartwarming songs such as Go not, happy day, which was full of smiles in this performance, bubbling over with good feeling. Adoration showed of a sumptuous vocal tone, while Come to me in my dreams could have been written for such a voice. Once again Middleton’s accompaniment was ideally weighted and phrased, the two combining for a magical and poignant encore of Bridge’s Yeats setting When You Are Old, powered by an achingly tender melody from the piano.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music:

Walton A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table (1962)
Quilter My Life’s Delight Op.12/2 (1908), By a Fountainside Op.12/6 (1908), Dream Valley Op.20/1 (1916), Arab Love Song Op.25/4 (1927), Fair House of Joy Op.12/7 (1908)
Watkins Five Larkin Songs (2009-10)
Bridge When most I wink (1901), Go not, happy day (1903), Adoration (1905), Come to me in my dreams (1906), Love went a-riding (1914)

Further listening & viewing

You can listen to the whole of the In Contrast release on Spotify here:

To hear clips and to purchase, In Contrast can be found on the Presto website

Wigmore Mondays – Kathryn Rudge & James Baillieu: English song

kathryn-rudge

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & James Baillieu (piano, below)

Howells Come sing and dance (1927)

Quilter Go, lovely rose (1922), Now sleeps the crimson petal (1897), Music, when soft voices die (1926)

William Charles Denis Browne To Gratiana, dancing and singing (1913)

Howells Peacock Pie Op.33 (1919)

Ivor Gurney Sleep (1914); Most holy night (1920); The Fields are full (pub. 1928); By a bierside (1916)

Bridge Three songs with viola [Far, far from each other; Where is it that our soul doth go?; Music when soft voices die] (1903-06)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Kathryn Rudge has a special affinity with English song, and in particular the music of Herbert Howells. I remember an especially moving account of his most famous song King David at the Wigmore Hall a few years back, and here she and pianist James Baillieu enjoyed the open-air sonorities of his song Come sing and dance (from 1:26 on the broadcast).

Howells is one of several English composers who excelled in the form of song, but who are not heard often in concert programs, so it was gratifying to see these two BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists trying something different.

Roger Quilter was the most celebrated song composer of the five here, and the selection of three of his most famous songs was lovingly performed. Go, lovely rose (from 6:02), Now sleeps the crimson petal (9:08) an Music, when soft voices die (11:38) all showed off his melodic craft and subtly rapturous word settings, not to mention flowing piano accompaniment that was superbly played by Baillieu.

Most striking of all those here was the biggest rarity, a song by William Denis Browne, who was killed in the First World War. He left a tiny output of music, dying at the age of 27, and this song – To Gratiana dancing and singing (from 13:47) – left a lasting impression with its strong melody and bold, grand piano part.

james-baillieu-clive-bardaAfter the war English composers were attracted to the simple poetry of Walter de la Mare, and Howells delivered a short, six-part song cycle Peacock Pie, setting verses for children. Here it was oddly enchanting, especially the story of Tired Tim (19:37), who took an age to get up the stairs, the strangely charming figure of Mrs MacQueen or the lumbering profile of The dunce (25:35), a kind of march gone wrong. Rudge could perhaps have used more variety in her portrayal of the characters here, but Howells’ invention and distinctive harmonies shone through, especially in the magical Full Moon (26:45).

On to the tragic figure of Ivor Gurney, much of whose output remains unpublished after his tragically early move to the asylum. The quartet of songs here were dramatic in the extreme though – a resigned Sleep (30:51), a protective Most Holy Night (33:50) the heady, summer stillness of The fields are full (39:49) – vividly caught by both performers – and finally the terrible truth of By a bierside. Written in the trenches in France, its coda (43:20) sings of how ‘it is most grand to die’. This was the loudest and most painful music of the concert, but Baillieu’s response was magical, subtly moving the music through the keys to reach a less painful finish.

Finally we heard songs by Britten’s teacher and friend Frank Bridge, a masterful viola player who wrote his own instrument into these three songs, written between 1903 and 1906. In this performance they were highly charged, and could perhaps have done with more light and shade from singer and viola, but these minor gripes were outdone by the enjoyment of Bridge’s turbulent writing in Far, far from each other (47:10), the resignation of Where is it that our soul doth go? (from 51:00) and finally the warmer heart of Music, when soft voices die (54:45).

As an encore Rudge and Baillieu chose perfectly, opting for Alan Robert Murray’s song I’ll walk beside you (58:33), uncannily sharing a wish for a better, more inclusive world.

Further listening

Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu made their debut album as a partnership for Champs Hill Records in 2014 – and it complements the songs in this concert perfectly.