Given the musicians involved, it should come as no surprise to learn that ‘Trennung’ is an immaculately crafted and beautifully performed album. But it’s also an unusual record, turning up at the party dressed as a recital disc, but as time goes on, revealing more and more of its unique character. It’s a considerable sonic achievement; a dramatically well-realised concept; and, last but not least, a total mood.
Sampson’s original specialism in Baroque now forms just one element of her ever-expanding repertoire: in particular, her ongoing art-song duo with pianist Joseph Middleton has resulted in a series of captivating and imaginative recital CDs, with exhilarating gigs to match. Bezuidenhout is a seasoned performer in both chamber repertoire and solo (check out his complete survey of Mozart keyboard works, recently collected in one box), while also establishing a song partnership with tenor Mark Padmore. However, as far as I can tell, this is their first recording together.
I think this is part of the disc’s special, elusive atmosphere. Clearly, the duo have a rapport – especially after road-testing the material in concert (I was lucky enough to attend the Wigmore Hall date, with a very similar programme, fully-formed and firing on all cylinders). However, they still manage to give the album an exploratory feel, voice and fortepiano sounding each other out, almost duelling in places, punctuating each other’s silences. Of course, this is perfect for the subject matter – parting, or separation – a deliciously ironic choice for two musicians just starting a new project.
In concert, Sampson also referred to the programme as (forgive my paraphrasing) ‘song before Schubert’. Again, another layer of ‘separation’ is suggested, between the earlier repertoire in which this duo first carved out their reputations, and the Schubert-onwards focus on an elevated art song format that, surely, paved the way for modern songwriting as we have come to know it.
‘Trennung’ explores the intervening period where art song as a format still seems to be coalescing. Instead of a typical 20-25 track extravaganza, two miniature solo-voice operas open and close proceedings, and in between there are further four to six-minute pocket epics among the shorter choices. With this in mind, much of this music feels progressive: a pervasive sense that the composers are shifting the parameters. Some fell by the wayside – with hindsight, and given the intimate interactions between voice and piano that Schubert (among others) came to perfect, I am genuinely shocked that some of the composers featured here are currently lost to the wider listenership: with more programming like this, hopefully that will change.
The sound design is yet another factor in this ‘together-apart’ paradox. Producer Andrew Mellor has done a superb job capturing the room: we hear a breath or sigh here, a telling pedal manoeuvre there – which all play into the as-live excitement of the performances, but also help me ‘see’ the recital in my mind’s eye. You can ‘hear’ Bezuidenhout slightly stage left, as if in a concert hall, with Sampson more to the right, in front of the body of the fortepiano.
And speaking of the fortepiano, the set-up takes full advantage of the instrument’s characteristics. A lover of rhythm, I’ve always appreciated how a fortepiano seems to chime brightly at the top but thrum like an engine in the bass. This is a lovely mirror for Sampson’s signature brightness of timbre in her higher register, coupling/contrasting with her ability to introduce earthier flavours of stress or sensuality, especially slightly lower down the scale. A selection of Mozart songs brings this to the fore: witness the ardour in the second verse of ‘To Chloe’ or the defeated fury of ‘…Louise…’.
However, while Sampson still glides and echoes, Bezuidenhout exploits the fortepiano’s relative lack of sustain to give it the edge the programme’s topic requires, a sense of attack… every note making its own moment.
To my mind, two songs in particular show this in brilliantly contrasting ways. The opening track and first of the mini-operas already mentioned, Herbing’s ‘Montan and Lelange’, allows you to (ahem) dive straight in to the melodrama recounting the catastrophic effect a storm at sea has on the title couple’s seemingly watertight devotion. Sampson’s versatility of tone characterises the lovers and keeps the narration rock solid, while Bezuidenhout essentially dramatises the whole of the action in sound – as you follow the lyric in the booklet you’ll hear every swirling wave, every creak and crack of the doomed ship.
But one of my favourite tracks is a rescued obscurity called ‘Ode to the Clavichord’, by Christian Michael Wolff. The melody is achingly lovely, strengthened by a repeated three-chord figure between the verses. Here, Bezuidenhout must make the fortepiano inhabit the notoriously quiet, unpredictable clavichord, and does so, in a performance of true delicacy. Each note is caressed, treated like it will die away instantly; fills and flourishes inserted with a complete lack of ego, as if simply to keep the sound going. And brilliantly, Sampson – so accomplished at nailing precision without any loss of feeling – imitates some of these ornaments and clipped notes as her character’s bond with the instrument deepens.
Much more to discover, in a thoughtful collection that, I suggest, could probably not have been developed and realised until these two musicians arrived at similar points in their creative journeys and decided to do it. It’s super-assured, but wilful, experimental and searching. Repeated listening not just recommended, but necessary. Out on BIS Records now.
Photography: Marco Borggreve.