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The Contrast: English Poetry in Song
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, UK
BIS BIS2413 SACD [81:06]

There was a time when many song recitals were assembled on what might call almost a haphazard system. Operatic excerpts jostled in a seemingly random manner with religious songs and others of a more secular or light-hearted nature. More contemplative artists would attempt to bind such miscellaneous material together by concentrating on the works of one composer, or might arrange the programme in a thematic manner emphasising a particular emotional strand or dramatic thread. But there is nothing wrong with the idea that a song recital can emphasise contrast as much as similarity. In this recorded recital, Carolyn Sampson has made the most of the different poetic settings made by several distinct composers in Britain during the course of the last century. Even when these settings are grouped into cycles, such as Walton’s and Huw Watkins’s songs on this disc, the contrasts between the individual poems and songs is as much in evidence as their similarity.

Walton’s A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, for example, consists of a collection of poetry assembled for the composer by Christopher Hassall, who had also provided him with the libretto for his opera Troilus and Cressida. The poems set range widely, from a satirical homage to the gourmandising nature of City of London official feasts, through a torrent of not altogether convincing excuses from misbehaviour addressed by a good-time girl to her sailor lover, to scenes of rapt contemplation such as Keats’s description of the Thames at Richmond. Carolyn Sampson adopts a variety of accents, including a not too broad “Eastender” for the wayward Molly, but I found that there were too many places where her words were obscured and incomprehensible without the provided texts. That may not be entirely the fault of Sampson, who is placed in a thoroughly natural acoustic balance with the piano; but without the physical presence of the singer we lack the sense of immediate communication, and the voice can tend to become submerged. In fact, I found this more of a problem on a large system than on a smaller one, where the bass resonances were less overwhelming. Those listening in SACD mode may find differences again. And the sheer beauty of Sampson’s singing in the setting of Wordsworth’s Glide gently, where the delicate piano shading of Joseph Middleton is less dynamically challenging, is very affecting indeed. He is also exceptionally agile elsewhere when it is required, and there is plenty of humour in evidence throughout this recital.

The selection of songs continues to provide plentiful contrast in the three Vaughan Williams items, where again the delicacy of lines such as “Deep in the sunsearch’d growths the dragonfly hangs like a blue thread” from Silent noon bring a sense of enchantment. The seven songs by Frank Bridge also run the gamut of emotions. A a trenchant Love went a-riding brings the selection to an end after the withdrawn stillness of Mantle of blue, a beautiful setting of Padraic Colum which is perhaps the least familiar of the items offered here. Sampson lets loose with a full-blooded engagement in Adoration. Similarly the selection of six songs by Roger Quilter run the gamut of themes from lyrical to heroic, and the three songs from Walton’s Fašade which bring the recital to a close have all the sense of unbuttoned nonsense that Edith Sitwell’s poems require.

But the principal point of interest in this recital must surely be the performance of Huw Watkins’s Five Larkin Songs, here receiving their first recording. In the past I have confessed myself to be somewhat disconcerted by the composer’s habit of allowing his works to end abruptly, often in mid-flow. But in these treatments of a variety of Larkin’s idiosyncratic poems, he rounds each of the songs out in a thoroughly satisfactory conclusive style, even in the final setting of Dawn which Paul Rodmell’s booklet setting describes as a “still and unexpected ending”. The composer ranges widely through the realm of Larkin’s poetry, from 1944 to the twisted irony of Money in 1973 – “I am all you never had of goods and sex”. Generally his selection is more lyrical and melancholy, and he manages to make musical sense even of convoluted lines such as “however the sky grows dark with invitation cards” which might seem to defy melodic setting. Indeed it is these settings which are the most pressing reason to invest in this recital, even for those who may already have performances of the generally better-known songs on their shelves. Apart from my reservations about the recorded balance in the resonant Potton Hall (and this may well depend on the equipment on which the disc is played, as the notes with the issue recognise), the performance and recorded sound is excellent.

The recording comes packed in BIS’s new eco-friendly gatefold sleeve. A substantial booklet contains full texts of all the poems, and there are notes and biographies in English, French and German (but it omits to inform us of the dates on which some of the songs were written). The disc is exceptionally well-filled, but I am pleased to note that BIS have adhered to their commendable policy of allowing for adequate pauses between items.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

William WALTON (1902-1983)
A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table (1962) [16:25]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1938)
Orpheus with his lute (1901) [2:59]
The sky above the roof (1907) [2:39]
Silent noon (1903) [4:03]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Go not, happy day (1903) [1:18]
When most I wink (1901) [2:41]
Adoration (1905) [2:50]
Come to me in my dreams (1906) [3:38]
When you are old (1919) [3:54]
Mantle of blue (1918) [2:12]
Love went a-riding (1914) [1:41]
Huw WATKINS (b. 1976)
Five Larkin Songs (2010) [12:22]
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
Dream Valley, Op.20/1 [2:14]
Fair house of joy, Op.12/7 [1:46]
By a fountainside, Op.12/6 [2:56]
Arab love song [1:17]
Autumn evening, Op.14/1 [2:53]
My life’s delight, Op.12/2 [1:13]
William WALTON
Three Fašade Settings (1923) [9:00]

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