On Tuesday, 14 April 2015, the British soprano Carolyn Sampson, much loved mainly by early music lovers, made her appearance in the Small Hall of the Concertgebouw with a not so very common programme. This time it was not so much about the composers, but about …. flowers. So no Bach, Handel or Purcell or… but, wait a minute! The last one was indeed represented, because he too paid an ode to the rose.
The Concertgebouw’s website summed up Sampson’s recital nicely: “Normally, opera diva Sampson gets flowers thrown at her, but tonight she offers the audience a bouquet.
With her floral recital, Sampson travelled all over Europe, for which there was also a good commercial reason: the Swedish company BIS released her long-awaited new solo album, Fleurs. Roses, lots and lots of roses, but also snowdrops, jasmine and lily of the valley are not forgotten.
The afternoon before her recital, I met her in the Concertgebouwcafé. It was as if the weather gods had granted her and her flowers that little bit extra: the day was warm and sunny, with a perfectly blue sky. Her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter was playing outside, while her six-year-old son had had to stay at home: he was already of school age and so it just was not possible to take him to Amsterdam.
The children are the main reason she does so little opera, because she would have to be away from home so very often, and she is just not willing to do that. Home is Freiburg, where she has lived for nine years with her husband, who has a job with the Freiburger Barockorchester.
“I do my best not to do more than two projects a month, but sometimes it is difficult to fit it all into the schedule. In April and certainly in May, I am always busier than I would like to be. And don’t ask me why, I just don’t know. Of course, all kinds of Passions and Easter Oratorios come along then, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. My recitals get also programmed more often in those two months.”
Doesn’t Bach get a bit boring during those months? “Can someone have too much Bach? Oh no, oh no! Bach is never boring, especially not the two passions. I always discover something new in them”.
“I come from a family of teachers, my father was a maths teacher. Music did not really play a role in our familiy, but at home we had a piano that was always being played. When I discovered my voice, I went to the conservatoire, but the plan was really to become a music teacher. I wanted that too, it also fitted in perfectly with the family tradition. My teacher did not agree. He thought I had much more to offer and so I was sent to London, where I had to report to Harry Christophers of The Sixteen. And then it happened as it always does: a singer fell ill and I filled in. That was in Handel’s Samson”.
Duet “Welcome as the dawn of day” from Handel’s Samson:
Sampson has already given three recitals in Amsterdam, and she remembers them well. In an earlier performance with Julius Drake she sang among other things various French songs. Repertoire after her own heart. Before the break she sang Liszt and Brahms and after the break came the French songs: Fauré and Debussy.
“Yes, you can safely say that I love French songs, they really do something for me. I also particularly love Poulenc. In 2014, together with Capella Amsterdam, I recorded his Stabat Mater for Harmondia Mundi. I sang it with tears in my eyes. So, so beautiful!”
“I would therefore really love to sing Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites, it really is my dream role! Hopefully, one day, something will come of, but for the time being she is not yet in the planning. But soon I will sing a role in another beautiful French opera: Melisande! I’m not allowed to tell you anything about that yet, but please know that I’m really looking forward to it!”
‘Vidit suum dulcem natum’ from Poulenc’s Stabat Mater:
“I also particularly like the romantic symphonic repertoire. If I could ever be home alone and have an evening to myself, without any obligations whatsoever, I would put on Mahler’s Second Symphony, I love it. But also Brahms 4 and the Symphony Fantastique by Berlioz. Or anything by Shostakovich, I love his fierceness!”
“I prefe to sing recitals, they are of the utmost importance to me, in the future I want to concentrate on them even more.”
“About my flower project….. It was Joseph Middleton, my pianist, who came up with the idea. We are not just partners, we are also good friends. So he knows me really well and knows what suits me. So he thought that it was nonsense to come up with the umpteenth Schubert or Schumann, that it would be much more fun to do something with a theme. The theme of “flowers” was an obvious one. There are so very many songs about flowers! Well, all right then, also about love, sex and women, but … But a flower is actually just like a woman. And vice versa. Yes, isn’t it?
The programme is divided into four sections: the rose, when the flowers speak, a French bouquet and flower girls by Strauss
“Is it true that all sopranos love Strauss? Yes, I think so. Maybe because he loved sopranos so much himself? He composed his most beautiful music for the soprano voice. Actually, he wrote very few songs for the tenor, but when I hear his songs interpreted by Jonas Kaufmann I get quite weak in the knees!”
Sampson’s latest CD just won’t go out of my head, that’s how much I like it. Whether it is Purcell’s surprisingly spicy “Sweeter than Roses”, Fauré’s lightly perfumed “Les roses d’Ispahan”, Strauss’ ethereal “Mädchenblumen” or Lili Boulanger’s poetically sensual “Les Lilas qui avaient fleuri”: it is all very beautiful.
Of course, I could search for all kinds of superlatives to better describe both the choice of songs and Sampson’s crystal-clear voice, but a simple “beautiful” will do, I think. It’s like all the flowers she sings about: bright, fleeting and transient. Like everything else, really.