Carolyn Sampson (Soprano) and Joseph Middleton (Piano)

Carolyn Sampson Interview

Graham Topping, Festival Compère, takes some time to talk to Carolyn Sampson about her upcoming performance for the Chiltern Arts Festival.

In the second of this autumn’s two concerts, in which international stars of classical music launch the new Chiltern Arts Festival, soprano Carolyn Sampson and her musical partner Joseph Middleton treat us to that most intimate of musical experiences, an evening of songs.

"clearly at the peak of her powers"

When I catch up with Carolyn Sampson she has just been nominated for the “Artist of the Year” award of the leading international record-review magazine Gramophone, which celebrates that she is “clearly at the peak of her powers – a lovely singer and a much-loved member of any ensemble”.

Just a few minutes on the phone makes it clear why her fellow artists must love working with her: she’s down-to-earth, with a mischievous sense of humour. No trace of the ‘diva’ here…

GTWhat are the pleasures of a song recital – both for the audience, and for you?
CSThe pleasure for me is in telling lots of stories, and swapping between lots of different characters in a short space of time. It’s quite a challenge! but I actually enjoy the biggest contrasts, when I have to turn immediately to a completely different mood and attitude.

So in the last group of songs in our programme, there’s a real twist. The innocence of “The Butterfly and the Flower” is completely smashed by Fauré’s “Fleur jetée (Discarded flower)” which is so bitter and angry. It’s a kind of dramatic special effect, such a shock you can only do it once in an evening! And straight from that we turn to Reynaldo Hahn’s lazy, post-coital “Offering”…

For the audience, I hope they enjoy being taken to these different places – that they can set their imagination free and come with us. Many of these songs are very evocative – the rather spiky, uncomfortable night-time encounter of Britten’s “Nightingale and the Rose” – which is followed by such a breath of fresh air in the Gounod song – or another Fauré song, “Roses of Ispahan” which takes you to such a warm, muggy place, the sort where even if you fan yourself, you only move the warm air around!

"…we use flowers… for all sorts of things we can’t say."
GTWhat would you say to someone who was thinking of trying a song recital for the first time?
CSI think Fleurs would be a great programme if you’re new to song recitals – there’s something for everyone, and if you’re not keen on one style, something different will come along soon! Jo (pianist Joseph Middleton) and I love to work with a really wide range of composers and styles ¬– and feelings. Look how we give flowers both to say “I love you” and to mourn for someone. Actually we use flowers to ‘stand in’ for our feelings, for all sorts of things we can’t say.
"I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to mix such different types of music"
GTYou’ve made your reputation as a baroque and classical singer, and as a soloist alongside orchestras. Are song recitals a new direction for you?
CSWell, they don’t replace my baroque work – just next month I’m off to record Bach. But a singer’s voice grows and changes. As my voice has grown I’ve been able to do bigger things, like Mahler with big symphony orchestras. And in songs, I get to use such a different palette of colours in Strauss, or Fauré, from those in Bach. A bit like the difference between pastels and bright primary colours (I’m not saying which is which!)

Most of all I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to mix such different types of music.

"It’s a real duet where we play off each other, knowing the other will respond."
GTDoes an evening of song require different skills from your other music-making?
CSIt needs massive concentration from me, for a start! because it’s all sung from memory. And it needs real stamina – there’s no time off between solos. But yes, there are different technical skills. In the songs with piano, I can’t use my ‘full voice’ in the way I would with an orchestra, but they need really fine nuance, which takes enormous discipline. The great thing is, that feeds back into the rest of my work. All the different things I do help each other.

The song recital is actually my favourite thing of all to do, because it’s so intensive. Joseph is a dream partner, it’s a real duet where we play off each other, knowing the other will respond. We know it well enough now to be playful with it, to go where the music takes us on the night.

Carolyn Sampson Interview; pictured with Joseph Middleton at the Frant Music Festival

GTDo you have particular favourite songs in this programme?
CSLes Roses d’Ispahan, the Richard Strauss song Rosenband, um… Debussy “On Flowers”. Oh, and Hahn’s Offrande, and, oh… it’s impossible!

Carolyn Sampson (soprano) and Joseph Middleton (piano) will be performing a selection of music from their album "Fleurs" in St Mary’s Church, Old Amersham on 1st October 2017.

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