Last night in Herbst Theatre soprano Carolyn Sampson presented the final recital in the 2016–2017 season of San Francisco Performances. This was her San Francisco recital debut, having previously performed with both the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony. Her accompanist was Joseph Middleton, making his third SFP appearance since 2014, having accompanied mezzo Sarah Connolly’s SFP recital this past March.
The program basically reproduced the selections on a BIS album Sampson and Middleton had recorded which was released in 2015. The title of that album, as well as last night’s recital, was Fleurs (flowers); and the program was divided into four floral themes. The first of these was devoted strictly to roses with texts in English (Henry Purcell, with a figured bass realization by Benjamin Britten, and Roger Quilter), German (Robert Schumann), Russian (Britten), and French (Charles Gounod and Gabriel Fauré). This was followed by the four songs in Richard Strauss’ Opus 22 collection, Mädchenblumen (flower maidens), preceded by the first of his Opus 36 songs, “Das Rosenband” (rosy ribbons). The third section was entitled When blooms speak, beginning with Franz Schubert’s D. 519 “Die Blumensprache” (the language of flowers). This was followed by the D. 738 “Im Haine” (in the wood) and three more Schumann songs. The final section surveyed six French composers: Francis Poulenc, Fauré (two more selections), Reynaldo Hahn, Claude Debussy, Lili Boulanger, and Emmanuel Chabrier.
On the pages of the program book, this seemed like a pretty massive offering. However, each selection was distinguished by its brevity, as if the physical scale of the flower had been matched by the temporal scale of the music. As a result, the entire collection proceeded at a brisk pace. The resulting tempi never felt forced, and Sampson’s command of both facial expression and body language reinforced that natural sense that time was proceeding at its own appropriate speed. Thus, by the time she and Middleton were ready to take their final bows, there was a bit of wonder at how much ground had been covered.
Given how many of the “usual suspects” were responsible for the selections on this program, it is worth singling out a few of the less familiar, and sometimes eyebrow-raising, moments. Figured bass was, of course, an invitation to invention by the keyboardist; and Britten was never shy about inventing. Thus, he translated what was probably Purcell’s own showy display in the seventeenth century into a more twentieth-century perspective, perhaps even slightly mocking invention carried to extremes for the sake of virtuoso display. However, Middleton rattled off all of Britten’s hyper-charged embellishments with an inner calm through which Sampson could deliver the anonymous text of “Sweeter than roses” with its multi-dimensioned approach to rich expressiveness.
Britten’s own offering, on the other hand, was a reminder of the breadth of his interest in literature. “The Nightingale and the Rose” was part of his Opus 76 song cycle The Poet’s Echo. This consisted of settings of six poems of Alexander Pushkin that he composed for Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano (and wife of Mstislav Rostropovich) for whom Britten had composed his Opus 66 War Requiem. Then there were the composers who rarely seem to show up on concert programs. Lili Boulanger tends to be better known for the stories about her prodigious talent and short life, rather than the music itself; and Sampson’s delivery of “Les lilas qui avaient fleuri” (the lilacs that bloomed) made it clear that Boulanger’s talents involved more than hearsay.
However, on her “home front” Sampson clearly had an affection for countryman Quilter. She selected “Damask roses” from his Opus 12 collection for the first part of the program. However, she then returned to Quilter with her first encore selection, the second of the three songs in his Opus 3, his setting of “Now sleeps the crimson petal” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Quilter was a prodigious composer of songs; but he has not gotten a particularly fair shake in American concert halls (or, for that matter, on recordings). Sampson’s selections reminded us of what we have been missing.
Taken as a whole, this was an evening offering the right balance of the familiar with a few surprises; and, hopefully, Sampson will be returning soon with further instances of her imaginative approach to programming.