Last night the Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music featured mezzo Catherine Cook. Cook is known primarily to local audiences for her appearances with the San Francisco Opera, which have been consistently characterized by their balance of a keen sense of drama with solid vocal work. The major piece on last night’s program was Robert Schumann’s Opus 42 song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben (woman’s love and life), a composition in which the dramatic impact of Adelbert von Chamisso’s poetry carries as much weight as Schumann’s music.
Opus 42 is considerably shorter than the major song cycles composed by Franz Schubert. Chamisso’s original cycle consisted of nine poems, from which Schumann set only the first eight. The cycle follows a woman’s thoughts from her first impressions of a man through courtship leading to marriage. The pleasures of married life are then cut short by the husband’s early death. In the final poem, which Schumann omitted, the woman has grown old and grey, hoping that her daughter will also appreciate the joys of true love.
Each of Chamisso’s poems is told through the voice of this female protagonist. What is particularly striking is how he alternates interior monologue with exterior communication, even when the woman is only speaking to the engagement ring that has just been placed on her finger. In each of the corresponding songs, the piano provides a context for the woman’s particular communicative action; and that context is often established through extended solo work for the piano.
This poses a problem for many vocal recitalists. What do you do when the piano has one of those solos? This was where Cook’s dramatic skills could best be appreciated. Beyond her skill at phrasing that captured the full semantic impact of each poem, her command of both posture and gesture captured just as powerfully the interiority of each poem, represented only through Schumann’s piano writing (executed last night through a compelling interpretation by Keisuke Nakagoshi). These dramatic techniques served Cook equally effectively when she was singing, but it was when she needed to keep silent that they so successfully carried the greatest weight.
Cook chose to begin her recital with Opus 42. This could be seen as putting her best foot forward, but it also made for a hard act to follow. The major work on the second half of the program was Jake Heggie’s The Deepest Desire: Four Meditations on Love. These are settings of texts by Sister Helen Prejean, taking a relatively loose approach to free verse. Here, again, it was clear that interiority was of the highest priority; but the words came across more like the pages of a personal diary than the skilled crafting of a poet like Chamisso. As a result, the relationship between words and music, provided this time by Elizabeth Lowry on flute joining Nakagoshi on piano, was far weaker, almost suggesting that the music was there only to fill the space occupied by the delivery of the words.
Fortunately Lowry had a chance to present her skills more effectively. Heggie’s song cycle was preceded by “Vocalise-étude,” originally composed for soprano and piano by Olivier Messiaen in 1935. By this time Messiaen was exploring the rich sonorous possibilities of a full orchestra; so this short piece amounts to a “retreat” into a more intimate expressiveness. Lowry performed the soprano line on flute but without sacrificing the vocal qualities that Messiaen initially envisaged. One might say that this music captured the essence of verbal expressiveness without ever having to fall back on the words themselves, which would place it very much in that same spirit behind Schumann’s approach to the piano in his Opus 42.