Sweeter Than Roses:Carolyn Sampson Sings Henry Purcell

United StatesUnited States Purcell, Byrd, Simpson, Banister: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Beiliang Zhu (viola da gamba), Paul O’Dette (archlute), Kenneth Weiss (harpsichord), Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 10.10.2013

Henry Purcell: Songs
William Byrd: Third Pavan and Galliard in A Minor, from Lady Nevell’s Book
Christopher Simpson: Division on a Ground in E minor
John Banister: Division on a Ground

Henry Purcell’s music has always held a special place for me. It’s not at all difficult to see Purcell as the musical equivalent of Shakespeare. The genius of both men is unfathomable: neither had formal education that would account for their profundity; both had a purity and naturalness seemingly untainted by quotidian life. Historical influences and the sources of their works can be found but each, having created his own unique world, stands apart.

Purcell died at 37. He lived barely a year longer than Mozart did, and like Mozart he was astonishingly prolific. The Zimmerman catalog of Purcell works consists of nearly 700 anthems, sacred and secular songs, operas, odes and incidental music plus instrumental suites, fantasias and dances.

The first work on this program was “Thou wakeful shepherd.” It’s representative of a style of devotional songs whose libretto and score seem stark and bare but, when sung with the empathy and insight of Carolyn Sampson, the songs are found to be rich in content. The sudden changes that occur in the last four lines of “Shepherd” are particularly of interest. They go from confession and repentance to brief lilting melismas on the words “With joy I sing.” This is then followed by the joyless repetition of the phrase “Yet who can die,” and it concludes with the dispirited “so to receive his death.”

Sampson’s presentation of the songs was totally free of artifice. She seemed comfortable in all of Purcell’s vocal ranges, and her attention to every word and ability to match the music to the text was totally convincing. So many early music sopranos look to Emma Kirkby as the ideal voice, crystal clear and “white” in its lack of vibrato. This kind of voice is best suited for sacred music such as the Ténèbres of Couperin or Charpentier, music whose long melismas would fill a cathedral with their purity. There is nothing cool about Sampson’s voice: it is warm and natural with no loss of fervor or passion in being vibrato-less.

“Sweeter than roses” is a model of the subtle vocal tone coloring that Purcell was capable of using, and Sampson, in a text that runs only seven lines, captured all of it. The key words “cool,” “breeze,” “trembling” and “fire” received just the right intonation. The word “victorious,” repeated twice as six-measure melismas, left no doubt as to what love has won.

Not all the songs on the program were as solemn or staid as the ones discussed above.

“Man is for the woman made” is a tavern song with a harmonic line that is simple enough for anyone in any state of inebriation to play. “When first Amintas sued for love” is in a similar vein. The not-very-subtle double entendres are sung in the style of a sea-shanty or hornpipe with the concluding lines: “For soon he found the golden coast/Enjoy’d the ore, and touched the shore/Where never merchant went before.”

In between Sampson’s vocal sets there were interludes that highlighted the three accompanists. Paul O’Dette played the archlute, an instrument that is a somewhat smaller version of the more resonant and deeper-voiced theorbo. This was the first time that I’ve seen this instrument played solo, and it was fascinating to watch how the fretted strings were played like a lute at the same time as the fixed, un-fretted strings were plucked. This created a self-contained unit that sang and supported itself with its own harmonic bass line. Kenneth Weiss performed “Pavan and Galliard” by William Byrd with a delicacy that one might not expect from a harpsichord. Viola da gambist Beiliang Zhu played a spirited “Division on a Ground” by John Bannister.

As the harmonic support for the Sampson recital, these talented instrumentalists were never intrusive. They all formed a winning team in a concert that was truly outstanding.

Stan Metzger