Come all ye songsters

Carolyn Sampson, Elizabeth Kenny, Jonathan Manson, Laurence Cummings
77:40
Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0083
Music by Corbetta, Draghi, Purcell, Simpson & anon

One of the problems of live recital CDs is their potential ability to inspire feelings of envy of the audience that was present when you were not. By the time an ecstatic audience comes to show its appreciation of this superb recital, given at the Wigmore Hall in March 2105, I was way into such feelings and longing to join in to express my appreciation. Instead I consoled myself with memories of an unforgettable late night recital Carolyn Sampson gave with countertenor Robin Blaze at the first Göttingen Handel Festival I attended back in 2006.

One of the most compelling features of that event was the ability of the artists to communicate strongly with their audience (and each other) to a rarely attained level. It is that same quality that one senses with the present concert, where it is evident that Sampson and her colleagues very obviously had the audience eating out of their hands. And of course this is hugely important in the vocal items presented here, mostly songs taken from Purcell’s stage works, The Fairy Queen  being particularly favoured. Sampson never lets us for one moment forget that the singers in such pieces were more often than not actor-singers, giving each song its own distinctive character and finding in them a gamut of passions ranging from the plaints of unrequited lovers to dramatic outbursts and wit. ‘Let the dreadful Engines of Eternal Will’, one of the two ‘mad scenes’ from Don Quichotte  included, is a tour de force  in this respect, including aspects of all three. The pastoral evocation in the passage commencing ‘Ah where are now those flow’ry Groves’ leaves unforgettable beguilement in its wake, before the final cynical philosophy carries the scene to its end with deliciously pointed humour, leaving the audience in laughter.

Yet for me one of the most admirable features of Sampson’s singing is that all this emanates from superb vocal acting rather that the exaggerated gestures we sometimes hear in this repertoire. It involves the employment of first-class diction, but equally as importantly a wide range of vocal colour. Just listen, as a single example from many, to the subtle colouring and inflexions on the words ‘kind’ (the line from ‘I see she flies me’, Z573 reads ‘Were she but kind, kind whom I adore’. And just in case you’ve not already succumbed (impossible, I would have thought), one of Sampson’s encores is perhaps the most tear-jerking performance of ‘Fairest isle’ (King Arthur) I’ve ever heard. In short, Carolyn Sampson has here provided a master class that makes the CD obligatory listening by all singers aspiring to sing this repertoire.

The accompaniments are admirably played, with each of Sampson’s distinguished companions also allowed their own spot in the limelight, Laurence Cummings providing a lovely, mellow performance of the Harpsichord Suite No. 5 in C. Jonathan Manson’s bass viol tone is richly lyrical in Draghi’s ‘An Italian Ground’ and Christopher Simpson’s ‘Divisions on a ground, while Elizabeth Kenny plays three pieces from ‘Princess Anne’s lute book’ and a fine Passacaille by Corbetta, all this music appropriate in the context and helping to complete an intelligently designed programme. A predictably exemplary note by Purcell scholar Andrew Pinnock, full documentation and printed texts complete an issue that is in every way deserving of the highest praise.

Brian Robins