SCHUBERT A Soprano’s Schubertiade
Every new repertoire frontier in Carolyn Sampson’s growing body of solo recordings – that so regularly turn up in the Gramophone Awards – can’t help but prompt anticipation. Few singers have her combination of linguistic intelligence plus a voice with coloratura precision and a solid core allowing the variety of colour needed over a full-disc, one-composer recital. She occasionally goes for operatic amplitude, though not nearly as often as some visitors to this repertory. At the other end of the expressive spectrum, her partnership with the pianist Joseph Middleton shows great capacity for intimacy.
The album’s title, ‘A Soprano’s Schubertiade’, speaks of how songs are arranged to create portraits of the composer’s many female protagonists, some inspired by the Goethe-authored heroines of Faust and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Booklet annotator Susan Youens, author of Schubert’s Late Lieder among other studies, makes a good case for this concept. The disc doesn’t include many of the usual greatest hits (‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ being an obvious exception) and explores rarely heard items such as the 19-stanza saga ‘Viola’ – one of several selections that account for how a 78 minute Schubert disc contains only 15 titles. Don’t forget that ‘Ellens Gesang III’ (better known as ‘Ave Maria’, another greatest hit) unfurls over an expansive six minutes. The ultimate question is if the disc has a place alongside the many great discs of Schubert song that are already out there. The answer is yes on a number of fronts, even though I didn’t immediately warm to the disc as I did, say, Bernada Fink’s 2008 recital (Harmonia Mundi).
Sampson and Middleton maintain emotional poise: the soprano doesn’t take her phrase readings to existential Mahlerian depths and the pianist maintains a solid sense of musical pulse, so much that some songs are as much as 30 seconds shorter than one is used to (and that’s a fair amount of real estate in this miniaturist world). When Sampson brings off a particularly well-vocalised feat, it also has considerable expressive function. When Middleton changes tempo as the music turns an abrupt corner, he uses form as a similarly expressive device. Along the way he gives Schubert’s word-painting its due – but elegantly. Though the aforementioned ‘Viola’ isn’t top-drawer Schubert, it certainly merits attention thanks to the considered cumulative narrative that Sampson and Middleton bring to the song. Other dividends include a ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ that isn’t expressed in tragic retrospect but seems to unfold in real time. Gretchen is realising her plight as we listen, and doing so with a tinge of disbelief that suggests ‘Could this really be happening to me?’
The following ‘Gretchen im Zwinger’, written rather later and left unfinished (but completed here by Benjamin Britten), explores the deeper emotional consequences of the previous song and becomes, in this performance, something of a tour de force, though without the aid of surface histrionics. ‘Der König in Thule’, the third in the Faust series, is a bit of a letdown. In any recital, you’re bound to hit a few songs that support the disc’s overall concept but lack complete identification from the performers. Other real-word realities are that Sampson’s vocal brightness isn’t about to deliver the luxurious depths of tone you hear from Dorothea Röschmann’s 2014 Schubert recital with Malcolm Martineau (Sony, 3/15) or the instinctive melancholic undertones of Fink. Also, I wish that the BIS microphones had left a bit more air around Sampson’s voice. Minor complaints, all.