REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, Ryedale Festival, 17/7/2021

Carolyn Sampson: Ryedale Festival concert was “Elysium indeed, however you define it”. Picture: Marco Borggeve

Ryedale Festival: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, St Peter and St Paul Church, Pickering, July 17

THE name Elysium covers a multitude of … well, pleasures. To the ancient Greeks, it was where the blessed, especially heroes, decamped after death. For the rest of us, it means paradise, with a small or large ‘p’.

Either way, it was the umbrella for soprano Carolyn Sampson’s late-night Schubert recital; she had also given it in the afternoon. Joseph Middleton was her piano partner, a top-notch combination. How typical of artistic director Christopher Glynn to bring in big names right at the start of the festival.

Schubert had a Damoclean sword of disease hanging over the last third of his life, so thoughts of the afterlife cannot have been far from his mind. Perhaps, like the young nun, he looked forward to peace after life’s storms, exquisitely encapsulated in Sampson’s pianissimo Alleluias at the end of Die Junge Nonne, without vibrato.

There again, Elysium is doubtless a place of endless melody, prefigured by Goethe’s Ganymede, where little tunes keep bursting out as he soars upward and we felt his excitement at what lay ahead.

Romantic poets often use moon and stars as stand-ins for heavenly realms. The opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata colours the setting of Holty’s first An Den Mond (To The Moon). There is melancholy, too, in Goethe’s poem of the same name. Both here conveyed the idea of the voice as the reflection of the soul.

The brisker dactyls of Die Sterne (The Stars) showed a happier side to starlight, contrasting with the wonderful stillness this duo delivered in Nacht Und Träume’ (Night And Dreams) where moonlight gleams gently. There was a wonderful delicacy in Sampson’s tone for Der Liebliche Stern (The Lovely Star), tinged with sadness as the star contemplated its own reflection.

There was sunlight in the programme too. In Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen (To Be Sung On The Water), it glinted on the waters of Middleton’s piano, eventually evoking escape from the passage of time.

A thrillingly rapid account of Der Musensohn (The Son Of The Muses) really danced with glee. In total contrast, Du Bist Die Ruh (You Are Peace) was consummately sustained by Sampson. Similarly, Middleton had tinted in little details of the nightingale’s twitterings with delicacy.

So to Schubert’s setting of Schiller’s Elysium, virtually a cantata, where rapid changes of mood require a chameleon-like approach. This duo was more than equal to its demands: light and shade, sun and storm and eventually an endless wedding feast, a heaven to die for, certainly.

Even more of a rarity was Schubert’s only song as a melodrama, Abschied Von Der Erde (Farewell To The World), given as an encore – pure delight, and filled with the reconciliation the composer undoubtedly achieved near his end. Elysium indeed, however you define it.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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