Classical Album of the Week: English Songs Spanning 120 Years in Carolyn Sampson's The Contrast

Oct 21, 2020

October 19, 2020. Songs can entertain and touch us with emotions, from happiness to humor to heartbreak. The Contrast, a new release by soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton, celebrates the range of works by five English composers writing over the last 120 years. 

The music dates from about 1900, and the texts span centuries. From the works of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, to 20th-century poets Edith Sitwell and Philip Larkin, literature has been a rich source of inspiration to these English songwriters.

Carolyn talked with me on Zoom about how the album came together, and what singing these songs means to her:

"We wanted to look at the range of styles in English music. We felt that a few composers get quite a lot of exposure," says Carolyn, pointing, as an example, to Benjamin Britten [who is not on the album]. We wanted to look at some of the other voices and to include contemporary work as well." 

It is, in some ways, like a collection of 30 musical short stories.  "I very much hone in on the text," says Carolyn. "I think our first job is to tell stories. Then of course it's whether I can relate to the way it's told, whether it feels comfortable to sing. ... Sometimes a song grows on you. It's a bit like trying clothes on, really, you know, you see things on the coat hanger and then you [try] it on." 

The album, bookended by music of William Walton, takes its name from a song that is part of Walton's cycle: A Song for the Lord's Table, written for a City of London festival in 1962. The song, "The Contrast" compares the vitality of the city where one can be "enraptured by this and enchanted by that" and the soothing peace of the country, which "sets all matters right, so calming and composing from morning to night." Walton, she says, has a distinctive voice, and "really draws pictures"  in his music."

There are contrasts among the different harmonic voices of the composers, and among the songs within each composer's section.

Included among the five are Vaughan Williams, whom she says writes "what people expect of an English song. You can almost see the countryside and rolling hills," along with the lesser known composer Roger Quilter, who "has something of that as well. He's just less well-known than Vaughn Williams and that seems a shame, because some of these songs are really special."

Very different is the contemporary Huw Watkins' cycle of Five Larkin Songs (set to poetry of Phililp Larkin) written for Carolyn in 2010. Especially poignant is his "Love Songs in Old Age," starting simply: "She kept her songs, they took so little space. The covers pleased her."

The songs of Frank Bridge, who was Benjamin Britten's composition tutor, have a beauty that belies some challenging harmonics. Carolyn says she particularly loves the song,  "When you are old," set to a poem by W.B. Yeats.  "It's the perfect love song, [expressing] that you don't have to be perfect. It's not about being young and beautiful; love is this thing that's grown." 

An illustration, perhaps, of why songs can touch us in such powerful ways.   "We're exploring emotions sometimes that we've experienced ourselves, or sometimes not, but we're given this opportunity to empathize with many different situations. And for me, that's the strongest thing about performing them, trying to feel how would that be, to be sitting there when I'm older, with a long-time partner,  and what will that affection be? It pushes us to expand our emotional horizons. Especially right now, when we need all the compassion we can have."

Track list:

WALTON, William (1902-83): A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table The Lord Mayor's Table * Glide gently * Wapping Old Stairs * Holy Thursday * The Contrast * Rhyme

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, Ralph (1872-1958) Orpheus with his lute * The sky above the roof * Silent Noon

BRIDGE, Frank (1879-1941) Go not, happy day * When most I wink * Adoration * Come to me in my dreams * When you are old * Mantle of Blue * Love went a-riding

WATKINS, Huw (b.1976): Five Larkin Songs: Who called love conquering, Wants , Love Songs in Age, Money, Dawn

QUILTER, Roger (1877-1953) Dream Valley, Fair House of Joy, By a Fountainsid, Arab Love Song, Autumn Evening, My Life's Delight

WALTON, William: Three Façade Settings Daphne * Through gilded trellises * Old Sir Faulk

With expertise in historical informed music, Carolyn Sampson’s many recordings also include a range of styles, from A French Baroque Diva celebrating Marie Fel, which won the 2015 Grammophone recital award, to a recording of Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Exsultate Jubilate with Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan, which won the [2020] Choral Award.