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<em>The Genius of Purcell</em>Carolyn Sampson and The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall
26 Oct 2017

The Genius of Purcell: Carolyn Sampson and The King's Consort at the Wigmore Hall

This celebration of The Genius of Purcell by Carolyn Sampson and The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall was music-making of the most absorbing and invigorating kind: unmannered, direct and refreshing.

The Genius of Purcell: Carolyn Sampson and The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall

Claire Seymour

Above: Carolyn Sampson

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve


Framed at the centre of the platform by bass violist Reiko Ichise and theorbo player Lynda Sayce, with violinists Cecilia Bernardini and Huw Daniel to right and left, and Robert King’s harpsichord and chamber organ to the rear, Sampson looked and sounded the epitome of elegance and expressiveness. Her smoothly polished soprano is a perfect fit for Purcell’s melodic fecundity. The tone was clear as a bell, the diction superb: the words seemed to float on the melody. And, the purity and easefulness of Sampson’s sound production is wonderfully suited to Purcell’s rhythmic shifts and quirks which were pliantly absorbed into the flowing phrases. Moreover, while Sampson’s tone is unblemished it is never colourless: she imbued the clean line with judicious expressive radiance.

The programme alternated some of Purcell’s ‘greatest hits’ with instrumental sonatas, largely drawn from the Ten Sonatas in Four Parts that Purcell’s wife, Frances, published in 1697, two years after her husband’s untimely death. The first and third of the composer’s three settings of Colonel Henry Heveningham’s ‘If music be the food of love’ bookended the performance. In the 1692 setting, Purcell often assigns two notes to each syllable and Sampson flowed freely through the relaxed vocal line, accompanied by bass viol, theorbo and harpsichord. The third setting, dating from three years later, is more extravagant and elated, and here Sampson’s melismatic elaborations had a delightful ‘slipperiness’ which captured the poet-speaker’s excited appeals; the latter were echoed in Ichise’s vivacious but eloquent bass viol line.

The tempo of ‘Music for a while’ seemed to me to be fairly swift and the angular ground bass unfurled with compelling forward motion as it searched for new harmonic terrain and then retreated to home ground in an unceasing exploratory cycle. Similarly, the vocal line seemed to be perpetually striving towards something just out of reach, the small leaping motifs creating energy and brightness. When the peaks are reached many of the vocal phrases slip down scalically, and the flowing tempo helped Sampson create a fluid, silky vocal line and to integrate the shifts of register into a sinuous whole which was enriched by plangent instrumental suspensions.

The text for ‘Not all my torments can your pity move’ is just four lines long, but Purcell manages to traverse a wide emotional landscape. Above the grave, slow-moving bass line, Sampson sang with recitative-like freedom at the start, flourishing through Purcell’s melismatic rhetoric in the opening line to convey the anguish of the rejected poet-speaker’s unrequited love, a biting pain which seems to deepen with the extended, more angular repetition. The contrasting simplicity of the monosyllabic directness of ‘your scorn’ was thus a more pressing assertion of an angry despair which overflowed in the impassioned excess of ‘increases with my love’. ‘Yet to the grave I will my sorrow bear’ sank to the depths, yet Sampson’s voice remained full of emotive weight; and, while there was vigour in the hopeful repetition of ‘I love’, the final melisma was a cry of desolation. This was wonderfully dramatic, communicative singing.

Ichise’s ground bass again created a fluent momentum in ‘O! fair Cedaria’, which complemented the freedom and grace of Sampson’s opening melisma, while the gracefulness of the soprano’s ornamentation was an exquisite embodiment of the ‘beauty and charms’ which shine so dangerously from Cedaria’s visage. Again, lovely interaction between voice and bass viol created a beguiling lyrical rhetoric, suggestive of the enslavement of one who ‘Unless I may your favour have/[cannot] one moment live’, an almost delightful torture which was emphasised by the major/minor harmonic tensions and the sustained sequences played by the organ and theorbo which underpin the final magical vocal descent.

Such cares were swept aware by the unadorned purity and melodicism of ‘Fairest Isle’, in which the two violins provided invigorating inter-verse reflections, the two fiddlers injecting freshness and life through interesting bowing which created a sense of airiness and lift, above the lightly tripping harpsichord. King chose the chamber organ to accompany ‘O solitude’ but there was no sense of ‘heaviness’, particularly as Sampson’s isolated single-syllable utterances were so perfectly placed and the rises in the vocal line were infused with a frisson of brightness. She withdrew to an enchantingly delicate pianissimo, though, when reflecting on her own ‘fancy’ - ‘I hate it for that reason too,/Because it needs must hinder me/From seeing and from serving thee’ - and the tierce de Picardie in the final phrase, ‘O solitude, O how I solitude adore’, evoked the self-reflective indulgence of the poet-speaker.

‘Incassum Lesbia, incassum rogas’ (In vain, Lesbia, do you beseech me), written following the death of Queen Mary in December 1694, was a highlight of the recital. In the framing recitative-like sections Purcell employs every rhetorical harmonic and rhythmic gesture in his arsenal to communicate unassuageable grief. Sampson relished the dissonant cries and sobs, which were paradoxically both sweet and sorrowful, a dualism complemented by the instrumental swings between major and minor harmonies. In contrast, the central aria ‘En nymphas! En pastores!’ (Lo, the nymphs, lo the shepherds) lilted flowingly, and the dark colours which saturated the final lines were assuaged by the warmth and stability of the final image of the Queen’s ‘star’, which ‘Shines on in the heavens’.

The final item, ‘If love’s a sweet passion’, was given persuasive direction by the bass viol and enlivened by the contributions of the two violins. We had had the opportunity to enjoy the instrumentalists’ conversation in the Sonatas which had intervened between the vocal numbers. The King’s Consort combined precision and flexibility, creating varied textures and timbres within single sonatas. Yet, even when the harmonic dissonances created density there was a prevailing lightness which allowed the interplay between instruments to come to the fore, as in the Allegro of the Trio Sonata in G minor, or the Canzona of the Sonata of Four Parts in A minor. Elsewhere, there was a seamless blending, as in the beautiful evenness and serenity of the Largo which closes the Sonata in D Minor. The instrumentalists did not overlook even the slightest harmonic nuance, and guided unobtrusively by King used Purcell’s myriad harmonic devices and discordances - the yearning suspensions of theLargo of the Sonata in B minor were particularly telling - to create rhythmic impetus and build coherent forms from diverse parts.

The Sonata in F major which opened the second half of the concert was especially appealing, with second violinist Huw Daniel making a lively contribution in the Canzona and ensuing Grave, the violins’ dialogue creating a sense of ‘theatre’ - fitting for a work commonly known as the ‘Golden’ Sonata. Here, too, the bass viol line was full of vigour and freedom; indeed, King reminded us in a programme note that the sonatas had initially been written in three parts but that a separate basso continuo part had been added - for ‘the Organ or Harpsecord’ - which strengths the harmonic foundations of the sonatas and enhances the chromatic colouring so characteristic of the composer’s harmonic language.

The full house at the Wigmore Hall were warmly appreciative at the close, and when King disturbed the symmetry of the WH florist’s platform adornments, plucking a red bloom to bestow upon the unassuming Sampson, the gesture seemed an appropriate mirror of our own gratitude and admiration.

Claire Seymour

The Genius of Purcell : The King’s Consort - Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Cecilia Bernardini & Huw Daniel (violins), Reiko Ichise (bass viol), Lynda Sayce (theorbo), Robert King (harpsichord & chamber organ)

Henry Purcell: Sonata of Four Parts in A minor Z804, ‘If music be the food of love’ (first setting), ‘Music for a while’, Trio Sonata in G minor Z780, ‘Not all my torments’, ‘O! Fair Cedaria’, Sonata of Four Parts in D minor Z805, ‘Fairest Isle’, Sonata of Four Parts in F Major Z810, ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’, Sonata of Four Parts in G minor Z807 (Adagio), ‘Incassum Lesbia’ (The Queen’s Epicedium), Sonata of Four Parts in B minor Z809, ‘If music be the food of love’ (third setting), ‘If love’s a sweet passion’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 25th October 2017

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