Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Carolyn Sampson/Julius Drake @ Middle Temple Hall, London

6 November 2008

Just seven weeks after giving birth, Carolyn Sampson was back on the recital platform, as part of the “Julius Drake and Friends” series at Middle Temple. The pianist has been running these top-flight concerts for some years now and there’s an element of informality amidst the splendour of one of London’s oldest performance spaces.

On this occasion we were told that Sampson’s baby was sleeping in the next room. There was little that this working mum offered during the evening that wouldn’t have lulled the mite back to slumber had he awakened. There’s a Schumannesque deftness to the Mendelssohn songs that opened the programme and Sampson’s bright, light soprano sparkled through Scheidend (Separation) and the tripping Pagenlied (Page’s Song). Floods of glorious sound filled the hall in Nachtlied (Night Song) and the tone changed with Hexenlied (Witches’ song), as legions of spooks flitted about, reminding us that last week was Halloween and Midsummer Night is not so very far away.

The second section of the first half took us from the shallows of Mendelssohn (to be paddled in more fully no doubt during his bi-centenary next year) to the deeper waters of Schubert. The epic story-telling of his Ellens song I, II and III, based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, allowed us to hear his Ave Maria in its proper context. It didn’t totally succeed in getting away from its saccharine connotations but, beautifully caressed by Sampson’s voice and Drake’s dreamy accompaniment, it charmed nonetheless.

A short break preceded the luxury addition to the platform of Michael Collins for the clarinet obbligato in Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock). One of Schubert’s most insinuatingly lovely songs, written shortly before his premature death, it gives almost equal weight to the soloists, as it winds through various moods from deep grief to a dancingly sprightly ushering in of Spring by the nimble clarinet. Performed faultlessly by the three artists, it was a gorgeously audience-pleasing way into the interval.

The second half delved into the twentieth century repertoire, with songs by Debussy that are now pretty standard fare in the concert hall – C’est l’extase, Green and Spleen – but with some slightly less familiar songs as well (the bouncy carousel horses of Chevaux de bois lapsing into sad knelling of bells that was echoed exactly by real time-keepers just outside the historic building).

The programme had a certain symmetry, with the languorous ecstasy of Debussy leading back into something flightier in a number of Poulenc songs that bobbed along on the surface – a feeling of “gossamer mist” that finished with the rapid runs of the “violin knight of silence” of Paganini. As encore, the pair performed Hahn’s hauntingly Bachian A Chloris and brought Michael Collins back onto the platform for Schubert’s other great soprano/clarinet duet, the Romanza from Die Verschworenen.

As much as I love Sampson’s voice and persona, I would sometimes like her to find something a little harder and not be quite so nice. There are a lot worse qualities than niceness, though, and her ravishing sound is never less than welcome.

This was the last “Julius Drake and Friends” recital of this year but the series returns in 2009, when the pianist will accompany Christoph Prgardien (21 May), Katerina Karnus (15 June), Felicity Lott (9 July) and Patricia Rozario (20 October). Mark Padmore, Christopher Maltman and William Towers will come together for Britten’s Canticles in November.

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