Saturday, 31 October 2020

A chilling operatic tale from Frances-Hoad as centrepiece of Sampson & Middleton's impressive contribution to the Oxford Lieder Festival

7.30pm, Tuesday 13 October, 2020

(reviewed from online stream 31 October 2020)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford

Oxford Lieder Festival

Late to the party, I finally caught up today on Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton’s contribution to this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival online, and I am so glad I did - at the last minute, as the concerts are still available until tomorrow evening, so if you’re quick you can still catch this and the rest of the festival’s concerts.

The theme of the festival was Connections Across Time, and the centrepiece of tonight’s programme was the world premiere of the festival’s Associate Conductor, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s song cycle, written especially for Carolyn and Joseph, with a text by Sophie Rashbrook, Six Songs of Melmoth.

Frances-Hoad’s happenstance inspiration for the cycle began when she picked up a copy of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent at a lending library at Bedford station, which led her to read Perry’s other novels, including Melmoth. This book in turn took inspiration from a much earlier work, Charles Maturin’s sprawling gothic tale, Melmoth the Wanderer, from 1820. The original involves Melmoth making a Faustian pact, taking 150 extra years of life in exchange for ensuring that he can convince someone else to agree to take his place, otherwise facing eternity burning in hell. So Melmoth roams through history, searching for someone to pass his curse onto. In Perry’s version, Melmoth is a woman, who seduces her victims as she crosses the centuries. Sophie Rashbrook took both versions as the starting point for her text, and across the six songs of the cycle, she takes the gender fluid Melmoth through time, and ultimately right into the present, the very singer in the concert hall presenting the final temptation to the audience to consent to join her.

Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton
(screenshot from online stream)
Frances-Hoad’s works for voice are always highly evocative, dramatic and in effect, miniature operas, and this is no exception. A gift for Sampson here, with its variety of characters, moods, and an overall narrative arc, complete with dramatic twist at the end, and she certainly relished the opportunity to demonstrate her phenomenal virtuosity as well as her ability to communicate such a complex and dark tale. Right from the piano’s curtain-opening flourish up the keyboard at the beginning of The Painting, Middleton also showed impressive command of the considerable challenges Frances-Hoad’s score presented, providing insistent pace in Shipwreck Gossip, with beautifully fluid, watery accompaniment to the long lyrical vocal lines in Elinora’s Letter, more dramatic flourishes in City of Song-Ghosts, and dark tolling in the final song, Melmoth’s Serenade. Sampson meanwhile took us through the dramatic journey with incredible intensity, and the blaze in her eyes whenever Melmoth is present was positively chilling. The eery tone of the calling voice promising deliverance, contrasting with effortless, long lyrical lines and challenging leaps right through the whole range, passed off with crystal clarity, in Elinora’s Letter. The moment of transition in Deliverance, when the singer’s voice shifts from trembling fear to crazy, wild-eyed consent was truly scary, and Sampson’s final chilling delivery direct into camera, ‘to the audience’, willing us to consent, was definitely disturbing, and hard to resist. A wonderfully striking and operatic cycle, and a highly affecting performance here - a recording must surely follow before too long.

They began their programme with a selection of five Schubert songs, and communication across the spiritual realm featured significantly here, from the heart rending lay dark Schwestergruss to the prayerful Litanei auf des Fest Allerseelen, and finally heavenly peace in Elysium. Again, Sampson shifts from mood to mood, with a desperate, ghostly breeze running through Schwestergruss, contrasting with sheer delight in her bright voice in Die Sterne, attaining bliss at its conclusion. Gott in Frühlinge had a light freshness, whereas her long, lyrical lines in Litanei and the final extended ewig in Elysium showed off Sampson’s impressive breath control. Middleton matched the moods, with warm yet solemn tone in Litanei, and rippling accompaniment building to the triumphant conclusion of Elysium.

Carolyn Sampson
(screenshot from online stream)
They followed the Frances-Hoad premiere with a selection of three songs by Satie, preceded by a beautifully liquid and limpid performance by Middleton of the Gymnopédie No. 1, also bringing out its sad, darker undercurrent. Sampson’s dreamy, fluid lines and bright eyes in Les Anges contrasted with a beautifully playful Mad Hatter in Le Chapelier. They finished this group with the sultry waltz, Je te veux, perhaps with shades of Melmoth the seductress here?

Poldowski was in fact the pseudonym of Belgian-born composer Irène Régine Wieniawska, daughter of violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski, and she lived most of her life in London. She particularly loved the poetry of Paul Verlaine, and the five songs presented here were all settings of his verse. In Cythère, Middleton’s dancing accompaniment underpinned a playfully flighty delivery by Sampson of the brief romantic encounter, and En Sourdine was all dreamy calmness apart from a muted, brief ecstatic outburst. Sampson’s Colombine was mischievous and balletically light, whereas L’heure Exquise had a beautifully romantic, liquid simplicity. Middleton had great fun conjouring up the strumming textures in Mandoline, disappearing away ‘in the shivering breeze’ with a light flourish. 

They completed their programme with Walton’s Three Façade Settings, less well-known than the ‘entertainment’ piece with spoken voice, Façade. Daphne has a folk-like melody, and is mainly straightforwardly narrative, with hints of a rippling river in the piano part, and a brief solo voice moment at the climax as Daphne transforms into a tree. Through gilded trellises plays with lilting Spanish rhythms, with a stop-start pattern hinting at brief sultry glimpses through the trellises, whilst Old Sir Faulk (which appears in Façade) closes the group with its foxtrot rhythm and jazzy humour. Sampson and Middleton delivered the set with style and a light touch, bringing their hugely varied and challenging programme to an end. 

Carolyn Sampson
(screenshot from online stream)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828):

Die Sterne
Gott im Frühlinge
Litanei auf des Fest Allerseelen

Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980)
Six Songs of Melmoth
1.The painting (Narrator) 1816
2. Shipwreck gossip (Old Biddy Brannington) 1816
3. Elinora’s letter (some salt-water damage to the text) 1516
4. City of Song-Ghosts (Narrator reprise)
5. Deliverance
6. Melmoth’s Serenade

Erik Satie (1866-1925)
Gymnopédie No. 1
Les anges
Le chapelier
Je te veux

Poldowski (1879-1932)
En Sourdine
L’heure exquise

William Walton (1902-1983)
Three Façade Settings
1. Daphne
2. Through Gilded Trellises
3. Old Sir Faulk

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