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Interview, Carolyn Sampson reflects on her first hundred recordings

Carolyn SampsonThe British soprano Carolyn Sampson reached a career milestone last month with the release of her 100th album, but I like to sing... Taking its title from a line in Bernstein's I Hate Music, this wide-ranging and beautifully-planned recital with her regular musical partner Joseph Middleton features songs by composers including Rita Strohl, Joseph Marx, Parry, Poulenc, Schubert, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and the late Kaija Saariaho, as well as a new setting of Siegfried Sassoon's Everyone Sang by Deborah Pritchard.

In between rehearsals for Peter Sellars's production of Charpentier's Médée in Berlin last month (in which she made her house debut as Créuse opposite Magdalena Kožená's anti-heroine), Carolyn spoke to me about the impetus behind the programme, some of the friendships which have come to fruition in the recording-studio over the past twenty years, and the unusual circumstances surrounding recording No. 101 (released last Friday on BIS)...

And why not check out Carolyn's top tracks on our streaming service - a short playlist of tracks from some of the recordings she's found the most enjoyable and rewarding during her career!

Where did you start when it came to curating a programme for this milestone album?

I wanted to find songs that really speak personally to me about how I feel about music, what it offers us and what it can say about the big wide world. That’s particularly obvious with songs like Poulenc’s C, Wolf’s enormously touching response to the Aeolian harp, and Deborah Pritchard’s new setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang.

Joe Middleton and I explored so much repertoire together (as we always do!), and the programme’s gone through quite a lot of incarnations; at one point we simply had too many themes going on, so we decided to make it a bit more concise. It’s been quite organic, the way it’s come together.

Was Everyone Sang composed especially for you and Joe?

Yes: Deborah wrote the piece especially for this album, so it was actually recorded before the live premiere - which is happening at Wigmore Hall tonight! I remember talking with Joe about which composers we might approach for a commission and he mentioned having played some wonderful songs which Deborah had composed for Ruby Hughes, so we got in touch. I came across the poem in an anthology and thought it would fit so well with the theme I had in mind for the album, so I suggested to Deborah that she might set it for us and we’re super-happy with the result.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Something More Than Mortal is a real tour de force for solo voice - how did you discover the piece, and had the two of you worked together before?

Cheryl wrote a song-cycle called Six Songs of Melmoth for me and Joe to perform at Oxford Lieder; we premiered it during the pandemic with no audience, and it’s really beautiful. This piece was written a few years earlier, and when I was trying to get to know Cheryl’s music a bit better I stumbled across it: sometimes when I’m looking for new music I just order a bunch of stuff (quite often from Presto, actually!) and read through it all to see what speaks to me. Sometimes you just have to take a punt on things, and inevitably some of it sits on the shelf…but that one very much stayed off the shelf and on the piano!

The Rita Strohl songs were completely new to me, and their frank eroticism rather took me by surprise! How did you come across them?

A good friend had come across her through the Cello Sonata and then done a bit of research to see whether there were any songs, so that’s how they got sent my way and I’m very glad that they were. These songs are definitely worth knowing and deserve a bit of air-time: Elsa Dreisig, Adèle Charvet and Stéphane Degout released a recording just a couple of weeks before our album came out, but they’re still very much not core repertoire!

Tell me a little about some of the friendships which have blossomed in the studio over the course of your recording-career…

I find myself saying this all the time in my little video-series, but I’m so lucky: I work with beautiful musicians who really inspire me, and that’s fostered some long-standing friendships over the years. The relationships with Matthew Wadsworth and Kristian Bezuidenhout are interesting, because I've known them both for a long time but we only recorded together a couple of years ago: each of those programmes had been cooking in different guises for ages, and it’s great when things finally come to fruition.

The partnership with Joe [Middleton] is actually relatively new, but we’ve worked together quite intensely: ten albums spread over ten years! So it’s a really nice mixture between those long friendships and this more recent obsession with song.

Quite a lot has changed over the past twenty years in terms of how albums are produced and consumed – has that had much direct impact on your choices about what to record?

I mostly don’t think about it very much, but since you mention it it strikes me that there was definitely a period where single-composer discs were the order of the day because they had to sit on a shelf in a record-shop or in someone’s collection…and Fleurs (my first recital-album with Joe) was very much not that. How people discover things on streaming platforms is a mystery to me anyway - I’m sure it’s all to do with algorithms and metadata and other things I don’t have a clue about! - but in terms of programming an album it can be really rather freeing.

Do you have favourite recording-venues - or are you happy wherever you have the right people around you?

I’m mostly happy wherever, because I don’t tend to obsess about the sound. When I listen back to my own recordings it always sounds different to how I remember it anyway, so when I’m in the studio I concentrate on the musical side of things and just trust the producer and engineer to do the rest. Joe’s extremely good at listening to takes forensically during production, and I must also mention the wonderful producer Jens Brown who does our song-recital albums: Jens is a magician, and he works so hard to create a sound that we really like. In a way what I want is for him to be happy in the space where we’re recording, because he’s the one that’s got to deal with the acoustic – I can only deal with what comes out of my body!

Do you enjoy revisiting your old recordings, or are you someone who prefers to sign things off and move on?

When the recording lands I’ll listen to it once, because it’s good to know what’s out there! But then I mostly put it away; I might go back if I need to refer to something later, but that’s it. Sometimes things resurface again by accident and that’s often a real pleasure: especially if it’s a recording that’s a little bit older, you can be quite objective and think ‘Yes, that was pretty good - I see why people enjoyed it!’.

It’s been really lovely to go through all 100 recordings for my video-series, because just hearing a snippet of each of them brings back lots of memories. I can’t have an actual favourite, but one that’s very close to the top of the list is the Poulenc Stabat Mater with Daniel Reuss, the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and Cappella Amsterdam: I love the music itself so much, and I couldn’t resist listening to the whole thing in one sitting!

How often do you learn repertoire specifically for a recording?

If it’s a project that I’ve initiated then there might be songs that I didn’t know before Joe and I started exploring possible programmes together, but we tend to do them in concert before taking them into the studio. There are a few choral and consort recordings from the early days, though, where I was essentially sight-reading! I started out singing in choirs, and reading through something and performing it the following day was just all in a day’s work…but if it’s a programme which you’ve researched curated yourself then there’s a different level of investment.

Recording No. 101 (Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra) was released last Friday, and I gather that this one involved a bit of a curveball…?

I was booked to sing the tiny part of Mater Gloriosa, and poor Sarah Wegener (who’d flown out from Germany to sing Magna Peccatrix) tested positive for COVID on the morning of the final rehearsal. The BIS engineer Rob Suff rang me to explain that they were looking for a replacement, and I offered to sing it in during the rehearsal if that would be helpful: I’d never even looked at the part, so in no way was I suggesting that I jumped in for the recording!

But after the rehearsal the team approached me and said that they’ve love me to sing it on the recording if I was happy to do it, and I gladly accepted. I think the reason it worked for me is because Osmo approaches Mahler like chamber-music making on the biggest scale you can imagine – he doesn’t want it bigger and blowsier that it already is! If he sees a passage for seven soloists that’s marked piano, he gives you the space to truly sing quietly rather than feeling you have to compete with the orchestra or with each other.

We had a team of soloists that really listen to each other as an ensemble, and I could fit into that context. It was a wonderful experience, and I’m doing some concert-performances of the piece with Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic next year.

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

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