British soprano Carolyn Sampson waited a long time to make her solo recital debut on disc, but the result – 2015’s Fleurs – was worth the wait. It was soon followed by the equally wide-ranging A Verlaine Songbook, setting up a pattern of thoughtful, unusually eclectic programs. But for their third collaboration, Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton have changed things up. The result, A Soprano’s Schubertiade, might tread more familiar ground, but does it with such care and such a perceptive voice that even some of the composer’s best-known songs feel freshly minted.
Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. Sampson is a soprano who has made her career in Bach, Handel and Mozart. Schubert, for her, is a point of chronological arrival not departure, as it is for many weightier singers who tackle this music. She brings her familiar lightness of touch and new-bloomed sound to this repertoire, offering a clear window onto Schubert’s heroines, (including Gretchen from Faust and Mignon, from the author’s second novel William Meister’s Apprenticeship, as well as Walter Scott’s Ellen from The Lady of the Lake), whose youthful, embattled innocence feels like a natural fit for a voice that has never sounded better.
Sampson is also a natural storyteller, and with the help of Middleton’s instinctive accompaniment spins Schubert’s narrative arcs with interest and invention that never flags. Viola – a slight metaphor about a snowdrop extended almost impossibly in Franz von Schober’s verse – sustains its musical weight with ease, while the dramatic arc of Was bedeutet die Bewegung is impeccably paced, moving from breathless, impatient anticipation to imagined ecstasy.
Gretchen am Spinnrade unfolds with unsettling urgency – the purity and sweetness of Sampson’s tone setting up a thrilling friction with the burgeoning sensuality that courses so insistently through her, transmitting itself to the seething, churning piano accompaniment. It’s paired here, pleasingly, with Britten’s completion of another Gretchen song. Schubert’s Gretchen’s bitte expands the emotional compass of Gretchen am Spinnrade, swelling into a written-through aria, whose mercurial mood-shifts are lovingly rendered here.
Another interesting piece of programming sees Schubert’s Ave Maria reunited with the two other ‘Ellen Songs’, reintegrating its heartfelt prayer back into an ongoing narrative, warming pious abstraction into something more characterised, more human. This really is an outstanding disc; a recital to take at a gulp and then revisit at leisure.