Carolyn Sampson: Reason in Madness
‘There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness’, Nietzsche wrote. His words form the starting point for Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton’s strikingly programmed recital that examines male musical responses to a number of literary heroines who are prey to the forces of unreason. It’s not, by any means, an exercise in psychopathology. ‘Madness’ is perhaps too narrow a definition for many of the emotional states that Sampson explores, and her focus falls primarily on women ‘whose stories’, as she puts it, ‘have left them vulnerable and exposed’.
Ophelia, sinking into insanity, is placed alongside androgynous Mignon, yearning for a world beyond the one in which she finds herself. Sampson’s inclusion of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ allows her to glance at other women in Lieder by Schumann and Brahms, who sit at their spinning wheels reflecting on similar unhappiness. Debussy’s Bilitis, emotionally ambivalent towards her seducer, contrasts sharply with the depictions of assertive, exultant female sexuality of Koechlin’s very different Bilitis songs. The disc closes, meanwhile, with Poulenc’s bitter ‘La dame de Monte-Carlo’, in which a gambling addict contemplates suicide as money, luck and self-esteem gradually run out.
Much of this repertory suits Sampson wonderfully well. Her silvery tone suggests fragility from the outset, while her restrained way with words admirably conveys the vagaries of desire, distress and confusion. She makes a fine Ophelia, both in Strauss’s manic-depressive songs and in Brahms’s lesser-known Ophelia Lieder, with their eerie snatches of half-remembered folk music. The ease and brilliance of her upper registers, meanwhile, are heard to fine effect in her passionate performance of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, while Koechlin’s ‘Hymne à Astarté’ genuinely startles with its fearsome ascents into the stratospheres.
Just occasionally elsewhere, however, we’re aware of a lack of weight lower in the voice. Duparc’s ‘Au pays où se fait la guerre’ lies fractionally low, as does Wolf’s ‘Kennst du das Land’, and it is perhaps significant that Sampson rearranges the conventional order of the Mignon Lieder to end with ‘So lasst mich scheinen’, which is simply heart-rending here. The Chansons de Bilitis are coolly sensuous and poised, though I prefer the darker tone and more overtly sexual delivery of Marianne Crebassa on her ‘Secrets’ album (Erato, 12/17). The disc owes its success, meanwhile, as much to Middleton as to Sampson. His playing is beautifully subtle and accomplished, and you get a real sense of singer and accompanist thinking and feeling alike throughout. Despite minor qualms, it’s a very fine recital indeed.