In Review > Concerts and Recitals

Sasha Cooke & Julius Drake

NEW YORK CITY
Zankel Hall
3/12/15

A song recital by the luminous American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is always an event. Her outing on March 12in New York City’s Zankel Hall, with the attentive Julius Drake at the piano, was no less so with its world premiere by Kevin Puts. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Puts’s song cycle, Of All the Moons, revealed the talented American composer living up to the prestige of the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded in 2012 for the opera Silent Night

Cooke’s commitment to contemporary music seems a natural part of her musical curiosity and communicative commitment. Each piece on this recital revealed a different aspect of her rich artistic personality, from the classical gravity of Haydn’s scena, Arianna a Naxos, to the giddy hilarity of Cole Porter’s “Give Him the Ooh-La-La,” from DuBarry Was A Lady.

Drake set up the scene of Ariadne’s awakening with playing that was both sumptuous and sparkling in detail. Cooke matched this with a nuanced delivery of the heroine’s languorous, love-drenched recitative, never losing vocal color for the many twists and turns of phrase, and bringing noble simplicity to the first aria, “Dove sei, mio bel tesoro.” Realizing that Theseus has in fact abandoned her, Ariadne careens from disbelief to despair and outrage, which Cooke highlighted skillfully. 

Both artists showed special sensitivity to atmosphere as they explored richer colors in a group of four songs by Franz Liszt, with fine transparency in “Lasst mich ruhen,” and delicate textures for the exposed phrases of “Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen.” 

The mezzo-soprano’s take on Mahler’s Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen is bitter and cynical, and her voice turned cold and hard, yet finely controlled. If the tone was not always plush — top notes throughout the recital were especially wiry— Cooke’s strong dramatic point of view overrode technical weaknesses. Similarly, although four Tonadillas by Enrique Granados suffered from a cool approach and showed Cooke’s lack of a true legato, the force of her great musicality again won out.

Puts’s new cycle, to texts by Marie Howe, should enter the repertoire immediately. The piano’s stinging and stark opening of “Sometimes the Moon Sat in the Well at Night” is particularly striking, with a pedal point continuing throughout the song, like the image of the moon described in the poem. Cooke’s sweeping, lyrical singing contrasted with the catchy rhythmic punctuations of “Once of Twice or Three Times, I Saw Something,” with the thirds and triads of “How You Can’t Move Moonlight” offering sonic balm. “You Think This Happened Only Once and Long Ago” features duetting between voice and piano that highlighted the rich clarity of Cooke’s low register, while both artists captured the wonderful vulnerability of the ending to “Annunciation,” Puts’s second setting of this poem. spacer 

JUDITH MALAFRONTE

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