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Classical Album of the Week: Soprano Carolyn Sampson Sings About Women's Reason in Madness

August 19, 2019. Women and their emotions have been subjects of literature for centuries. In Reason and Madness, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton perform music from 16th-century England to 19th-century Germany and 20th-century France, exploring through song the various ways women have been characterized as "mad."

Sampson grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald, drawn in by her joy, feeling, and honesty. She brings those qualities to her recital album with Joseph Middleton, Reason in Madness.  It's a collection of art songs by a variety of composers who responded to female characters in literature, giving voice to feelings of lamentation, insanity, abandonment, homesickness, witchcraft, desire and despair.

Among the composers represented are Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Poulenc and Strauss.

WRTI’s Susan Lewis spoke to Carolyn Sampson in December of 2018, when she spoke enthusiastically about the upcoming release of Reason in Madness, and the ways various composers respond differently to the same classic character.  For example, Shakespeare's Ophelia is a focus for Brahms, Strauss, Saint-Saens, and Chausson. 

Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:

Susan Lewis: So how did this album come to be? 

Carolyn Sampson:   We took as a starting point, the Ophila Leider by Strauss, and then we realized that there is a whole world of repertoire on the subject.

These women —madness is a tricky word obviously—but were considered mad, and sort of driven to some form of insanity by their situations. And of course it's a very rich scene when you start exploring that repertoire and such fun, such fun.

Where did you find all these pieces?

My pianist and I, we tend to cook up an idea, and then actually he's very good at hunting out repertoire and we'll sing things together and see how they work.

And what we find is that sometimes things will work as a concert program, but on the disk we need to  [change things around].  So, for example, with this one, we changed the order of the songs completely.

Can you give an example of one of the pieces? One of its stories?

Well, Ophelia is an interesting one because she is driven to distraction and ends up drowning in the river. What's interesting is the way different people set her story.

The Brahms songs that we do were written actually for an actress to sing on stage. So they're very simple, very folk-like. In fact, he only wrote the accompaniments later, so we do a little bit of it unaccompanied as well, which is interesting.

And I think also fun because—I felt exposed as well as a singer. So you know, these exposed,   vulnerable characters sort of tied into my experience of performing it like that as well.

Whereas with the Strauss [3 Lieder der Ophelia], he was actually very angry with his publisher, and he made them deliberately very difficult for the pianist and the singer, not necessarily technically but harmonically, and all sorts of things - also technically. 

Check out more Classical Albums of the Week.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.