Britten, Dowland, Purcell, and the world premiere of Stephen Goss’s The Miller’s Tale

Carolyn Sampson (soprano) & Matthew Wadsworth (lute & theorbo)

Carolyn Sampson
Photograph: www.carolynsampson.com Pasts and presents intertwined: that is the inescapable subtext of The Miller’s Tale by Stephen Goss (commissioned by guitarist John Williams) – and not only in the striking incongruity of writing for theorbo during the second decade of the 21st-century. The Chaucerian connection informs rather than defines the work. This is not a narrative piece, with the four central movements focusing on a character rather than on episodes from the Miller’s story, although it was perhaps possible to hear the clamour of John’s final misfortune.

More than any direct picture-painting, Goss conjures the impression of ancient, almost archetypal motifs emerging from the shadows: shortly after the opening a melody looms up from complex figurations. There are medieval echoes in rhythm and cadence, too, in this nine-minute piece that Wadsworth describes as “so idiomatic for this very strange instrument”, and striking tone colour with the low notes sometimes sounding almost brassy.

Goss is an exuberant musical borrower, and if rarely as overt as the indigenous passages in his American Pastoral or the Hispanicism of Albéniz Concerto – and even if occasionally The Miller’s Tale (for all its bawdiness) is more reminiscent of contemplative pieces such as Watts Chapel, the references nevertheless ground the work firmly in Chaucer’s world if not his tall story.

Matthew Wadsworth
Photograph: matthewwadsworth.com Elsewhere in the programme (a couple of Anonymous lute solos apart) Matthew Wadsworth shared the spotlight with Carolyn Sampson, opening with a series of John Dowland songs where the musicians showed great care for line and articulation at a stately pace – before becoming delightfully airborne at “to see, to hear, to touch, to kiss” in ‘Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite’.

Three Britten Folksong-arrangements provided a fitting past-in-the-present counterpoint to the Goss (most notably ‘The Soldier and the Sailor’), but most expressive were the concluding Purcell settings, Sampson’s technical prowess especially evident in the consistency of timbre across registers. And any inclination toward sobriety was abandoned when we reached the outrageously naughty ‘When First Amintas Sued for a Kiss’. The singer relates how “my hand he squeeze, and press my knees / Till further on he got by degrees”; and continues until he has “touched the shore / Where never merchant went before”; a anecdote that would not have been out of place from the Miller’s companions.

 

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