Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton have turned to Verlaine settings for their new album for BIS, drawing inevitable comparisons with ‘Green’ (Erato, 4/15), Philippe Jaroussky and Jérôme Ducros’s two-disc Verlaine survey. Wisely, perhaps, they take a very different approach. Where Jaroussky and Ducros focus on multiple settings of individual texts, Sampson and Middleton concentrate on song-cycles, bookending their recital with Fêtes galantes and Ariettes oubliées, and placing La bonne chanson at its centre. Notable among the remaining songs are those by Régine Wieniawski (‘Poldowski’ was the pseudonym she adopted), and d’Indy’s pupil Déodat de Séverac, whose plainchant-inflected ‘Paysages tristes’, one of many discoveries here, forms the disc’s unforgettable epilogue.
Sampson and Middleton are very much at home in this repertory, frequently functioning as an indivisible unit with sound and sense beautifully fused. Occasionally – in the opening ‘En sourdine’ from Fêtes galantes, for instance – Sampson lets consonants slip in a quest for dynamic shading, though elsewhere texts are scrupulously delivered. She’s in excellent voice, too, her tone clear and silvery, her upper registers exquisite: Chausson’s ‘Apaisement’ sends shivers down your spine with its floated high pianissimos and suggestive portamentos.
The subtlety of Verlaine’s poetry – in which inner emotion and external reality are in continuous if fragile accord – encouraged song composers to expand the range of their piano-writing, and Middleton’s playing is marvellously fresh throughout, the thin dividing line between wit and melancholy superbly negotiated. When it comes to La bonne chanson, I prefer the more forthright approach of Gérard Souzay, say, or the underrated Camille Maurane, to Sampson and Middleton’s reined-in interpretation, fascinating though it is. Ariettes oubliées, on the other hand, gets one its finest performances on disc, the slide from eroticism to bitterness immaculately judged. Very fine. (Tim Ashley / Gramophone)