It was one of New York City’s truly beautiful, spring days on May 14, 2017, which made it all the harder to leave the sun and enter into the glass lobby of the Alice Tully Recital Hall, but Carolyn Sampson was here to give a recital of her floral-themed program of art song, from her CD “Fleurs,” released in 2015.
Sampson, a British soprano, runs the gamut from early music to contemporary, her talents utilized the most through an impressive amount of early music and baroque opera. This Mothers’ Day evening recital, though, as explained by Sampson at the intermission, was driven by an impulse to foray into a, hitherto now, unexplored arena for the successful soprano.
Five years ago, Sampson, at the suggestion of pianist Joseph Middleton, started their excavation of all works related to flowers. The two spent hours singing through “millions of songs about flowers” she mentioned with a laugh. Those featured on the CD and in this recital were the winning entries and at the end of the evening, it was obvious why.
At 5 p.m EDT, Sampson and Middleton took the empty stage, save for a single Steinway. Sampson, in an Iris violet dress with ruffles streaming towards the hem from the knee, was the sole flower visual for the concert. A dazzling silver belt buckle tied the ensemble together with glittering shoes, the silver sister to Dorothy’s ruby reds.
The recital started to Purcell’s “Sweeter than roses,” a very foggy, mystical beginning, leaving minds wondering, where could she be going with this? Before long, the adage was left behind, building to an allegro coloratura section that raced to the end.
What followed was an expertly created program, despite the audiences’ refusal to abide by the instruction to applaud only at the conclusion of each song set. Distracting for Sampson, perhaps, though doubtful she was unwilling to receive the compliments of the audience.
Through the roughly hour and a half recital, the duo painted an exemplary picture of all that artistry is capable of. From some subtle seeming sprechgesang in Schumann’s “Röselein, Röselein” to a sultry breathiness in tone in Venezuelan composer Hanh’s “Offrande,” Sampson is a true artist, painting picture after picture from her palate of varying tonal colors and vivid musicality. It was a shame that so many viewers failed to silence their phones during the event, marring the meticulous work of both presenters, but even Carolyn brushed it off with an exclamatory “Oh!” of surprise at the sound of one such disturber of the peace at the top of her song set by Strauss.
Favorite moments of the recital included:
-“Mohnblumen” from Strauss’s “Mädchenblumen.” Sampson showed her clowning side in this tiny, electrically charged piece that invoked visions of a tiny opera scene and moments later in “Wasserrose,” where the soprano ran with Strauss’s story-time mood. Suddenly the audience was transported to a pile on the floor around her feet awaiting the unfolding of a legendary tale.
-“Damask Roses,” a brief Quilter song, during which she poured through with a phrasing that was almost Puccini-like, with a dramatic, climbing climax that quickly subsided.
– Joseph Middleton’s perpetual and dizzying accompaniment in Schubert’s “Die Blumensprache.” It was not a solo feature for the pianist, but the constant, rolling arpeggios were hypnotizing.
Dusk was approaching and the two ended the show on a jubilant finish, flourishing through “Toutes les fleurs“ by Chabrier.
It wouldn’t be a guest artist’s performance without an encore though, so pianist and singer reappeared with music in hand for a calming melody set to Tennyson, which she deemed necessary for her English speaking audiences.
Sampson’s website describes her as a ‘consummate recitalist,” now a known fact to New York City. Her easy vocal technique and astounding musicality soothe and excite. Moreover, the CD is worth a listen to those interested in chanson, mélodie, lieder and just plain good musicianship.