Thursday 19 June 2008

Pianos as Cows - Carolyn Sampson at Aldeburgh 2008

The cow reference, I hasten to add, being nothing whatever to do with Sampson herself, but rather referring to the second of Barber's Three Songs, op.45.

After Sunday's somewhat indifferent recital, to these ears anyway, which are apparently in something of a minority, by Robert Holl, Carolyn Sampson was a breath of fresh air. This time the venue was another Suffolk church, at Orford (pictured) and with only marginally more comfortable seats.

She sang a varied programme, with a broadly French theme, starting with Debussy's Ariettes oubliees. I'm not always a fan of his music, but these were very nice, and helped by her strong and rich voice. Better was to follow, though, from Bizet. His three songs scored over Debussy's in the wit of their poetry. The first two, Adieux de l'hostess arabe and Ma vie a son secret, were good enough but the third, La coccinelle (The Ladybird), was brilliant, telling of a naive you man missing his first kiss because an insect has caught his eye instead. "Cretin", says the ladybird. To the performance of all these three was a characterisation and an engagement with the audience: outgoing where Holl's performance was internalised. She's sung opera, and this makes me want to hear see in something, as I suspect she acts as well as she sings. The first half was rounded off with Poulenc's Airs chantes, four brief songs, well delivered.

The texts to all of these had not been included in the programme, fortunately a handout was provided. However, unlike Edinburgh programmes, there was no appeal to turn pages quietly (or indeed not at all, since care had been taken to ensure no song had been split between pages). Much rustling might have been saved.

After the interval we had a change of language with Barber's Three Songs, op.45. Originally composed for arguably the greatest lieder singer of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so doubtless they had been transposed. The suited Sampsons' voice wonderfully, however. The first and third were nice enough, but the middle song A green lowland of pianos which envisaged the instruments as cows, including going to the concert hall to be milked, was a triumph of Lear-esque nonsense. Why could we not have had the text for this? The more so since we didn't catch quite every word, doubtless the use of English had led to this misjudgement on behalf of the programme/handout editors.

These were followed by more French, this time from Britten's Quatre chansons francaises. Composed in 1928, when the composer was a mere fourteen, not that they show it, and dedicated to his parents' wedding anniversary. Again these were wonderfully sung. The concert finished with a similarly fine reading of Walton's Three songs (1932). It was a varied and yet very coherent programme.

They were well received and gave us an encore by Reynaldo Hahn, A Chloris, which was perhaps the most beautiful thing of the afternoon. This was in no small part down to the piano part, superbly played by the afternoon's accompanist, Jonathan Papp, whose name I have deliberately not mentioned until now. He was everything Jansen wasn't for Holl. At times he found incredible beauty in the scores and yet supported his soloist and never stole the limelight. One of the better accompanists I have heard in recent years. I know that in the past I have complained that I dislike encores, and for some works they are inappropriate, but in a programme such as this they have their place. Sampson also announced it, just as well since we'd never had guessed.

Sampson, a charming performer, was a little self-concious about her pregnancy, twice apologising to the audience for having to leave the stage for water between each group of songs. She needn't have: she seemed no different in this regard from most lieder singers, and her voice needed no excuses.

The afternoon's one blight, aside from programme rustlers and numbing chairs, was the gentleman who was permitted to bring his dog to the concert, which jangled its collar a fair amount in the second half. I don't begrudge this of guide dogs, but that wasn't the case here and, frankly, the ushers should have been more insistent in their conversations with him.

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