The wisdom in soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton’s choice of Fleurs (flowers) as the theme of her first song recording became clear at the start of her May 17 San Francisco Performances recital debut. Performing in Herbst Theatre before a small but appreciative audience, Sampson and Middleton shared such a heartfelt abundance of fresh, ever-flowing tone as to make a convincing case for spring’s promise of rebirth.
Sampson’s approach to the songs reflected her pedigree as one of our finest early music sopranos. While her technique itself was remarkable — the trills in Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s “Sweeter than Roses” were as unpretentious, effortless, and wondrous as the act of breathing itself — she chose to communicate primarily by tone rather than word painting. Thus, when she sang, “Sweeter than roses, or cool evening breeze / On a warm flowery shore, was the dear kiss / First trembling made me freeze,” of greatest import was not her slight emphasis on the word “freeze,” but rather the inner and distinctly sensual glow with which she infused every note. Along with that rare glow, the inherent smile and freshness of her voice, and the lightness with which she touched select top notes, made the song’s final words, “all is love to me,” the theme of the evening.
Even more than on her exceedingly well-recorded Fleurs disc for BIS, Sampson’s heart came to the fore on Schumann’s “Meine Rose” (My Rose). The pearly freshness and purity with which she sounded “rose,” and the effortlessness of her singing, made this listener glad to be alive.
The transition to the unaccompanied opening words of Schumann’s “Röselein, Röselein” was perfection itself, and Sampson’s little sounds of anticipation were a delight. Middleton, ever respectful of Sampson’s lead, took advantage of the piano’s full stick opening to cushion her singing with an abundance of colors and poetry. The final postlude flowed like water, with an unpretentious effortlessness the equal of Sampson’s.
Thus did the evening proceed. Songs by Quilter and Britten — the unusually dissonant “The Nightingale and the Rose,” sung in Russian — led to others by Fauré and Richard Strauss. Each was more wonderful than the other.
In Fauré’s “Les temps des roses” (The season of roses), there were touches of the anticipation that makes Cecilia Bartoli’s singing so special, while a remarkable descent on the phrase “ton soufflé léger” (your light breath) in his wonderful “Les roses d’Ispahan” (The roses of Ispahan) was reminiscent of soprano Elisabeth Schumann’s magical descents from on high.
Four early Strauss songs, assembled into a rarely performed cycle entitled Mädchenblumen (Maiden-Flowers), gave promise of the sensual, soaring lines in Strauss’s later songs. Although one faltering low note suggested the vocal fatigue that surfaced very occasionally after intermission, Sampson’s voice proved ideal for this youthful, spring-like repertoire. Middleton was poetic without ever overstating his case.
There were, however, vocal limitations. While Sampson summoned forth more sobering tone and extra gravitas for Schumann’s “Die Blume der Ergebung” (The Flower of Submission), she fell short of the bitterness and despair central to Fauré’s “Fleur jetée” (Discarded flower). Surprisingly, she then made of Debussy’s equally profound “De fleurs” (Of flowers) a most amazing journey from palpable ecstasy to anger. Sampson’s deft transition from this emotional vocal outpouring — modest by dramatic soprano standards, but perfect for Debussy — to the delicacy of Lili Boulanger’s “Les lilas qui avient fleuri” (The lilacs which bloomed) further confirmed her artistry.
Despite an anticlimactic close — Chabrier’s “Toutes les fleurs” (All the flowers) lacked the depth of the songs that preceded it — the audience demanded two encores. The final one, Schubert’s delightful “Heidenröslein” (Hedge Rose), found Sampson needing to check the lyrics before beginning. Perhaps that is why, as much as she infused her perfectly placed high notes with rosy brightness and light, she fell short of perfection.
Still, Sampson’s strength and security lower in her range, freshness on high, and delight in singing showed her the rightful successor of the great lieder artists of the past, a great and treasurable artist in her own right.