This disc is from the estimable Wigmore Hall
Live label and give us a chance to listen again to a recital which
Carolyn Sampson and Matthew Wadsworth gave in December 2008. It
is a very intimate recital; you feel that you are close to Sampson
and Wadsworth. It is very much a joint event, Wadsworth plays
a number of solo items, taking around a third of the running time
of the CD. The first half is devoted to English music, accompanied
by lute and the second half is Italian, accompanied by theorbo.
Wadsworth opens with a quiet Prelude by Philip Rosseter, lutenist to the court of King James I. This track demonstrates one of the disc's difficulties, the low level of recording of what is essentially a quiet instrument. As this is live, we get a pretty realistic volume level which can present some trouble if you try to listen with much background noise.
Sampson joins Wadsworth for the first group of songs, all texts from plays set by Robert Johnson, the only composer known to have written music for Shakespeare. Away delights (from Beaumont and Fletcher's The Captain) is a lovely melancholy piece. Oh, let us howl (from Webster's The Duchess of Malfi) opens in wonderful, dramatic fashion and ends on a dying fall. Finally Care-charming sleep (from Fletcher's Valentinian) has a grave beauty. There is something rather austere about these songs of Johnson's, especially as performed here with extremely spare accompaniments. But Sampson's eye for detail and lovely lyric voice mean that she captures our attention.
Wadsworth then provides two solo items. The first is a grave pavan by Ferrabosco which was included in a collection by John Dowland, the second a lively anonymous galliard.
Next comes Dowland's Fortune my foe, certainly rather more melodic than Johnson's songs, but still mining that same seam of melancholy gloom. Johnson's elegant pavan for solo lute stands between this and the next pair of Dowland songs, Can she excuse my wrongs and In darkness let me dwell. Sampson displays a neatly crisp and rhythmic feel in the first song, alternating this with some moments of lyric beauty. And in In Darkness let me dwell, despair has never been so beautiful.
There is a light delicacy to Sampson's voice, and a fine attention to detail, though I can also imagine this repertoire being sung more pungently, perhaps by a counter-tenor.
The Italian group opens with Monteverdi's Quel squardo sdegnosetto in which Sampson combines pinpoint accuracy with a delightfully teasing and sighing manner. Grandi's O quam pulchram es builds on this in a highly erotic manner, as it closes with much chromatic sighing, that it is difficult to believe it is a setting of a sacred text (from the Song of Songs).
Next Wadsworth plays two solos by Alessandro Piccinini, a contemporary of Monteverdi's who encouraged innovation in the playing of the instrument.
Caccini's Amarylli is well known, but here receives a limpid performance, enhanced by Wadsworth's discreet accompaniment. This is followed by another pair of solos from Wadsworth, this time by Kapsberger. Written by an Italian of German descent, these are dazzlingly tricky pieces, well played by Wadsworth.
The final item in the programme proper is a curiosity, Merula's Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nonna, a lullaby sung by Mary to Jesus. The accompaniment is based on a repeated two-note rocking figure in the bass which gives the piece a haunting, mesmeric quality, perhaps evoking the motion of the cradle. The vocal part is steadily more impassioned until it finishes in recitative.
Then as an encore we get Johnson's Have you seen the bright lily grow?, a lovely example of Johnson's austere, slightly awkward art.
The booklet includes an article by Hilary Finch which includes a little too much gushing description of the concert itself; full song texts and translations are included.
This is a lovely recital from a highly musical and intelligent artist. Sometimes she uses just a thread of voice, so that both lute and voice require extreme concentration. This is certainly not background music, instead the listener must concentrate on the music. But if they do, then there are riches to be found.