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Reason in Madness
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Westleton, UK
BIS BIS2353 SACD [74:50]

After several admired albums for BIS, Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton next offer a recital programme of French and German songs, concerning variously vulnerable and fated women, mostly Ophelia in settings by Brahms, Schumann, Strauss, Saint-Saëns and Chausson. But there is also the Bilitis of Debussy and Koechlin, and Goethe’s Mignon in settings by Wolf and Duparc while his Gretchen at her spinning-wheel in Schubert's lied is the most famous song here. Having begun with Ophelia the recital ends with another watery suicide: In Poulenc’s monologue La Dame de Monte-Carlo, the woman has lost at gambling and throws herself into the sea. The title of the album is a reference to a quotation from Part 1, section 7 of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness”, which is both as suggestive and as cryptic as many of Zarathustra’s utterances, but makes for a nice title.
 
Brahms’s Ophelia Songs, composed for a stage production of Hamlet, are unaccompanied, since they would have been sung by the actress playing the role. This of course gives an immediately “abnormal” sound to open a voice and piano recital, suggesting a character severed from normality. It is simple, brief and haunting, as is Schumann’s Herzelied. Both are simply performed too, letting text and music speak for themselves without any over emphasis. The three Ophelia songs of Strauss leap forward stylistically, and the first has a piano part wandering distractedly, rather like Ophelia’s mind, not quite connected with the vocal line. The second’s mildly risqué text is given a fast and restless setting while the third is a lament, leading to a fragment of dance, which Middleton and Sampson perform superbly in a way that somehow makes one section come out of the other with a mad musical logic. These Strauss settings were the starting point of the programme idea and so have been in their repertoire longer than some of the others, as Sampson explains in a booklet preface.

Les Chansons de Bilitis is a group of poems by Pierre Louÿs, which he claimed were translations from the ancient Greek of a young poetess, Bilitis. This (quite bogus) nymphette might, as Graham Johnson points out in his book on French song, have served Nabokov as a name for his Lolita. Debussy’s three songs are among his best early works and Sampson seems here to be as adept at the mélodie as she is at the Lied, with immaculate French and mastery of the Frenchman’s elusive manner. These are exquisitely sung and played. They are flanked by two Bilitis settings by Koechlin. The first, Hymne à Astarté, is fiercely sensuous and unbridled in its passion, with challenges for both recitalists very well met, even if this piece takes Sampson a little out of her musical comfort zone. Koechlin’s Épitaphe de Bilitis is totally different, its tranquillity captured in a quietly rapturous evocation by the soprano.

Goethe’s Mignon takes the stage next, first heard in Duparc’s Romance, and then in Hugo Wolf’s Four Mignon-Lieder. Of the latter, the duo has the measure throughout, but the last song, which Loges’s note calls a dance, is especially fine. The dance is a slow and dignified one, recalling another of Nietzsche’s remarks in the same section of Zarathustra, which furnished the title of this disc: “Now am I light, now do I fly; now do I see myself below myself. Now there dances a God in me.” Goethe’s Gretchen at her spinning wheel, her “poor mind shattered”, is evoked by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms – the last two not quite in the same league as the first of course. In the Schubert, Middleton captures the troubled restlessness of the accompaniment, and Sampson rises superbly to the passionate outburst “Und ach, sein Küss!

Ophelia returns with Saint-Saëns and Chausson, as well as all five of Brahms’s songs from which the opening track was given in its unaccompanied version. Now they have piano accompaniment but still occupy just four minutes. Their straightforwardness is a good foil to the ensuing Duparc piece, his superbly tragic Au pays ou se fait la guerre. This is often done with Wagnerian passion and power but Sampson’s quite different vocal qualities of a poetic line and purity of tone work just as well. The closing La Dame de Monte Carlo encompasses all the musical wit of Poulenc and Cocteau’s mini-drama, making it into a touching envoi.

This absorbing and accomplished recital disc is highly recommended. In addition to a fascinating programme, it has excellent SACD sound, ideally balanced, plus good notes, texts and translations – all is well up to the high BIS standards. Even the cover art has charm, poignancy and wit. It is a reference to the famous Millais painting of Ophelia, but with our soprano floating face upwards in the water. In an interview for Presto Classics, she tells us the picture was taken in a pond in a friend’s back garden. She “found the dress by accident in a vintage shop in San Francisco, and not only did it fit perfectly but it also did all the right things when I got into the water!” It is to be hoped that this much in demand singer did not catch a chill leading to any cancellations. After all, artists have a responsibility to their audiences. Thus spoke Zarathustra.
 
Roy Westbrook
 
 
Contents
Brahms (1833-97): Five Ophelia-Lieder, WoO. 22 (unaccompanied version)
No. 4, Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloß [0:56]
Schumann (1810-56): Herzeleid, Op.107 No.1 [1:49]
Strauss, R (1864-1949): Drei Lieder der Ophelia Op. 67 [7:18]
No. 1, Wie erkenn ich mein Treulieb vor andern nun? [2:27]
No. 2, Guten Morgen, 's ist Sankt Valentinstag [1:09]
No. 3, Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloß [3:42]
Koechlin (1867-1950): Chansons de Bilitis, Op. 39, No.1 Hymne à Astarté [1:54]
Debussy (1862-1918): Chansons de Bilitis, L97 [9:38]
No. 1, La flûte de Pan [2:56]
No. 2, La chevelure [3:38]
No. 3, Le tombeau des naïades [3:04]
Koechlin (1867-1950): Chansons de Bilitis, Op. 39, No.5 Épitaphe de Bilitis [3:40]
Duparc (1848-1933): Romance de Mignon, Op. 2 No. 3 [4:29]
Wolf (1860-1903): Mignon Lieder from Goethe-Lieder [15:54]
No. 9, Kennst du das Land? [6:23]
No. 5, Mignon I; Heiß mich nicht reden [3:39]
No. 6, Mignon II; Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt [2:06]
No. 7, Mignon III; So lasst mich scheiden, bis ich werde [3:40]
Schubert (1797-1828): Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118 [3:46]
Brahms (1833-97): Mädchenlied, Op. 107 No. 5 [1:43]
Schumann (1810-1856): Die Spinnerin, Op.107 No.4 [1:24]
Saint-Saëns (1835-1921]: La mort d'Ophelie [3:14]
Chausson (1855-99): Chanson d'Ophelie [1:44]
Brahms (1833-97): Ophelia-Lieder (5), WoO posth. 22
No. 1, Wie erkenn ich dein Treublieb? [4:07]
Duparc (1848-1933): Au pays ou se fait la guerre [5:14]
Poulenc (1899-1963): La Dame de Monte Carlo [7:49]

 

 



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