Germany Stravinsky, Copland, Bolcom, Barber, Gershwin, Weill, Bernstein and Rachmaninov: Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin/Tugan Sokhiev, Philharmonie, Berlin, 7.9.2012 (MC)
Stravinsky – Pulcinella suite (1919/20, rev. 1922)
Copland – Old American Songs (1950/52, orch. 1954/55): The Little Horses, Simple Gifts, At the River
Bolcom – Song of Black Max (1978), Amor (1978)
Barber – Must the Winter Come Too Soon? from Vanessa (1956/57)
Gershwin – Someone to Watch Over Me from Oh, Kay! (1926)
Weill – I’m a Stranger to Myself, from One Touch of Venus (1943)
Bernstein – What a Movie! from Trouble in Tahiti (1951)
Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935/36)
Popular American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was to sing Copland’s Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson but earlier in the week she pulled out of this Berlin concert through illness. This was a shame as I was looking forward to hearing her rendition of the Copland songs and I had also arranged to interview her prior to the concert. However, one person’s loss is another person’s gain with American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, a graduate of the Juilliard School, being given the opportunity to sing in front of a full Philharmonie audience. Unless I’m mistaken Cooke had already appeared with the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin (DSO) in the 2022/12 season with Mahler’s Rückert Lieder.
Not surprisingly, Cooke’s programme of orchestral songs was different tfrom Miss Graham’s but her choice was extremely similar in style. It took the three Copland songs from his set of Old American Songs before the mezzo’s expressive voice became warmed to the hall’s acoustic and she was then able to reveal her rich, warm timbre. Most of the songs suited Cooke’s excellent mid-range especially Barber’s Must the Winter Come to Soon? from the opera Vanessa with none of her selections extending her top too much. Cooke’s diction does leave some room for improvement as she struggled somewhat to enunciate in her low register such as in Bolcom’s cabaret song Amor where the fruity orchestral accompaniment threatened to drown her out. One of my favourite cabaret songs Bolcon’s impressive Song of Black Max was really well sung, yet I would have liked slightly more emphasis given to key words. Overall Cooke’s acting improved as she gained confidence aptly demonstrated by her marvellous rendition of Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me from the musical Oh, Kay! By the extended final song What a Movie! from Trouble in Tahiti there was no stopping Cooke, she was completely relaxed, acting her way splendidly through Bernstein’s kitchen sink chamber opera with palpable assurance and displaying a satisfying stage presence.
This exciting Berlin event was not just about our replacement mezzo-soprano stepping into the breach at short notice it also marked the inaugural concert of North Ossetian Tugan Sokhiev as the new principal conductor and artistic director of the DSO. On the evidence of this concert it may well prove to be a highly significant day in the DSO’s history as the mega-talented Sokhiev will surely increase the orchestra’s standing on the world stage. Sokhiev opened with Stravinsky’s suite from the ballet Pulcinella, a Diaghilev commission. Using themes by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi the ballet was premièred in Paris in 1920 and the suite containing no singing parts was prepared by the composer in 1922. In truth, the ballet suite started uncertainly but Sokhiev soon gained full control of the rhythmically elegant demands of the neo-classical writing. I was a touch surprised by Sokhiev’s choice of tempi in a couple of the eight sections, however everything satisfied and felt completely right. Given considerable opportunity to shine the buoyant woodwind section is a match for anyone, with the expressive oboist taking centre stage with some wonderful playing.
If the Stravinsky ballet suite was splendidly played, the performance of the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 3 in A minor was simply stunning. Infused with Russian rhythms and melodies Rachmaninov wrote a good deal of the three movement score at his new villa near Lake Lucerne in Switzerland in 1935/36. I don’t think that I’ve heard the wonderful melodies played as seductively with the lush and weighty string tone dominating. Rachmaninov’s dramatic writing is permeated with liberal amounts of steamy passion and tense drama which Sokhiev and the DSO held at near boiling point. Especially impressive was how Sokhiev controlled his large forces amid all the difficult tempo changes. The Berlin players were in their element in this music. It seems unfair to single out just the string section that played wonderfully expressively throughout revealing an attractive silver sheen to their timbre. Especially impressive was how Sokhiev was able to control his forces amid all the difficult tempo changes. Such was the rapt concentration of the thrilling playing I simply didn’t want the symphony to end. At the symphony’s conclusion Sokhiev intensified the weight and drama before allowing it to be released to almost sonic proportions. How the audience, which seemed to be around 95% of capacity, applauded as they knew that they had experienced something remarkable! Tugan Sokhiev is certainly a conductor to watch out for. I shouldn’t be surprised if this talented and charismatic conductor soon becomes a sensation on the world stage.