Mezzo Cargill shows impressive artistry in lieder recital
There was an old-school quality to Karen Cargill’s Weill Hall recital program on Friday night. No imagined “theme” bound her selections, and no token nods to unknown composers crept in. The Scottish mezzo-soprano assembled twenty-one songs, all in German, by four composers with plenty of individuality, but nonetheless with a shared aesthetic.
Cargill’s is not a perfect “recital voice.” Her tone is not completely even when she throttles it back from full force. There is also a slight but audible rasp in her soft voice that occasionally became distracting. Her fullest, brightest sound was not flattered by Weill’s sharp acoustics.
But whatever she might lack in ideal sonority, Cargill more than makes up for it in the artistry of her singing. From the very beginning of Alma Mahler’s Five Songs, which opened her program, Cargill showed complete poise, allowing the songs to be songs, rather than trying to turn them into mini-opera scenes. That doesn’t mean she had no textual connection–the poetry here is rich (written by Heine and Rilke, among others) and Cargill demonstrated a keen appreciation of it, even if her German pronunciation was dubious.
Of this set, the last two stood out in particular. The captivating calm of “Bei dir ist es traut” was supported by a misty, almost woolen quality in her soft voice. Then in “Ich wandle unter Blumen” she was both playful and passionate, not afraid to unleash the considerable power of her instrument.
Cargill was supported by a brilliant collaborator in pianist Simon Lepper, whose deft touch and sensitivity enlivened every song. He approached the accompaniment with a poetic sense of his own, knowing precisely how long to linger and where. The piano’s nightingale call in Grieg’s “Die vershwiegene Nachtigall” seemed to come from somewhere outside the hall, an otherworldly companion to Cargill’s conspiratorial hush.
Together the two tackled Wagner’s passionate Wesendonck Lieder with brio, ending the cycle with romantic bliss in “Träume.” They allowed the music to breathe freely; Cargill could push the tempo ever so slightly and achieve a major shift in the music’s level of urgency. Lepper was right there with her, his phrases breathing right along with hers.
The song that left the strongest lasting impression came from the first half, “Um Mitternacht” from Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. The five contrasting verses gave her the opportunity to show off the stunning variety she can find in her voice–not only of color and of volume, but of weight and texture. She had a clear idea about the song’s architecture, pinning the fourth verse as the emotional climax and amping up her energy to get there, before tapering down to a haunting end in the final stanza. The chest voice that she displayed here was astonishing, a crackling, muscular low register of harrowing power.
Several weeks ago, Cargill penned a moving tribute in The Guardian to her close friend and colleague Maria Radner, who was killed in the horrific Germanwings plane crash. After a brief dedication, she channeled her emotions into a touching rendition of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s “Eriskay Love Lilt,” dedicated to her friend.
To lighten the mood before sending the audience home she chose Britten’s goofy telecom jingle “When you’re feeling like expressing your affection.”