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CD Reviews: Carolyn Sampson

Charles T. Downey, Recording reviews: A limpid soprano’s chance to soar
Washington Post, February 3

available at Amazon
A Verlaine Songbook, C. Sampson, J. Middleton

(released on November 18, 2016)
BIS-2233 | 80'
Carolyn Sampson is known for her radiant performances of baroque music, having recorded widely with the world’s leading early-music ensembles. The British soprano’s voice combines limpid clarity with laser-focused precision, but with any possible harsh edges softened in a smooth finish. It is also beautifully suited to the corrupt delicacies of late Romantic French mélodie, as demonstrated in Sampson’s recent song recital recording on the BIS label, with the accomplished pianist Joseph Middleton.

All of the songs here are settings of poetry by Paul Verlaine. Some of the early works were inspired by Verlaine’s love for Mathilde Mauté, the young girl with the “Carolingian name,” as he put it in his collection “La Bonne Chanson,” set as a cycle by Gabriel Fauré. Verlaine married Mathilde, but not long after she had borne him a son, he ran off with a young poet named Arthur Rimbaud. Their scandalous love affair provided much of the material for his collection “Romances sans paroles,” including the poems set by Debussy in a set called “Ariettes oubliées.” After time in prison, Verlaine ran off again with Lucien Létinois, a 17-year-old student at the Jesuit school where Verlaine taught.

Multiple composers have composed songs on the same Verlaine poems, which makes for interesting comparison of musical settings. Sampson pairs Debussy's “Fêtes galantes” with songs on poems from the same collection by Poldowski, the nom de plume of Belgian-born pianist Régine Wieniawski. Individual songs by other composers, including Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Charles Bordes and Reynaldo Hahn, round out a most attractive program. Songs such as Déodat de Séverac's “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit” and Josef Szulc's “Clair de Lune” are major discoveries.

Throughout, Sampson produces an elegant ribbon of sound, couched in refined French pronunciation, that can hang in the air — for instance, a long, exquisitely soft high G at the end of Chausson's “Apaisement.” The only minor setback is that when pushed to louder dynamics, Sampson’s voice loses some of its satiny quality, turning strident, but this is rare in the songs here.

available at Amazon
Mozart, Great Mass in C Minor / Exsultate jubilate, Carolyn Sampson, Olivia Vermeulen, Makoto Sakurada, Christian Imler, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki

(released on December 9, 2016)
BIS-2171 | 65'52"
When Masaaki Suzuki reached the end of his epic traversal of Bach’s sacred cantatas with Bach Collegium Japan, he turned to Mozart. The Japanese conductor's authoritative recording of Mozart's Requiem was one of my favorite discs of 2015, and opened up a new line of specialization for his ensemble beyond the music of its namesake. Shortly after its release, Suzuki conducted another Mozart Mass, the “Great” C minor, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an astounding performance. Now, his recording of this work, with Bach Collegium Japan, is out on the BIS label.

It was hoped that Suzuki’s Requiem was the start of a recorded reexamination of Mozart’s music for the Catholic church. Mozart left the “Great” C minor Mass, like his Requiem, unfinished; he began it in Vienna as a complete setting of the Latin Ordinary but performed only parts of it on a honeymoon visit to Salzburg, Austria, with his wife, Constanze, in 1783. Suzuki has used the musicologist Franz Beyer’s careful reconstruction of the score, and the relevant historical details are laid out in a superlative booklet essay by Christoph Wolff.

Suzuki takes the opening “Kyrie” at a most satisfying, slow, grand tempo, like a dignified, crisply organized funeral march. The “Qui tollis” section of the “Gloria” has an equally cathedral-filling sound from both chorus and orchestra.

Mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen, tenor Makoto Sakurada and bass Christian Imler ably take their parts in the quartet of vocal soloists. The star of this score, though, is the first soprano, a part written for and premiered by Mozart’s wife. It seems tailor-made for Carolyn Sampson. In the extended showpiece “Et incarnatus est” in the “Credo,” she interweaves her immaculate soprano with the intricate woodwind lines, sweet and tender.

Rounding out the recording is Mozart’s famous cantata “Exsultate, jubilate,” from a decade earlier, although here Sampson’s fast runs are not quite pristine. As a lagniappe, Suzuki has added Mozart’s slightly revised version of the first movement — more a curiosity than an absolute necessity.

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