The Contrast – English Poetry in Song
Songs by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Quilter & Huw Watkins
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)
BIS BIS-2413 81.06 mins
In her introductory note, Carolyn Sampson designates this album ‘the first of this cycle,’ so presumably more instalments of British song are planned from this team. While hardly venturing into new territory (only Huw Watkins’s Five Larkin Songs are first recordings), most of this album is devoted to less-celebrated works – some early Vaughan Williams (including the Bach-via-Grieg style ‘Orpheus with his Lute’) and a selection of more harmonically lush songs by Frank Bridge and Roger Quilter – framed by Walton’s jazz-influenced sets.
In Walton’s celebration of London life, A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, Sampson sings charmingly and with admirable agility in the livelier settings; better still, with Joseph Middleton’s superb piano playing, is the eerie spell cast in ‘Glide Gently’. But too often Sampson cultivates beauty of tone rather than close engagement with the texts. Frivolous though ‘The Contrast’ might seem, this and other songs such as ‘Wapping Old Stairs’ could benefit from more characterisation, as Felicity Lott has winningly demonstrated with Graham Johnson (on Naxos).
Sampson’s approach works better in the Façade Settings and the salon-style Bridge and Quilter songs, particularly with their colourful and expressive piano parts played with aplomb by Middleton. This is also true to an extent with the Vaughan Williams songs, though Sampson’s interpretation of ‘The sky above the roof’ appears too generalised compared to Roderick Williams’s more detailed response (on Albion). And although Sampson gave the premiere of Watkins’s astringent Five Larkin Songs I can’t help thinking that a more engaged interpretation might have given these more of a ‘sting’. Daniel Jaffé