Crocetto and Nelson brighten a bleak Sunday for George London Foundation

Mon Oct 30, 2017 at 1:20 pm
Leah Crocetto and Zachary Nelson performed in the George London Foundation recital series Sunday at the Morgan LIbrary. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

Leah Crocetto and Zachary Nelson performed in the George London Foundation recital series Sunday at the Morgan Library. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

The 21st season of the George London Foundation’s recitals at the Morgan Library opened Sunday with another pairing of talented young singers. Leah Crocetto and 2012 London winner Zachary Nelson joined forces for a varied program ranging from Franz Schubert all the way to Richard Rodgers.

Nelson is billed as a baritone, but there’s more than a shade of bass in his voice. In a selection of songs from Schwanengesang he showed a smoky instrument of operatic size. He seemed less than ideally suited, in fact, to the intimate scale of Schubert’s lieder, not quite supple enough to navigate the dynamic turns of the music. Still, the tone he produced was gorgeous to hear, and he was able to convey compelling readings in broader strokes: an imposing “Der Stadt,” a grim, dramatic “Der Doppelgänger” that began with soft foreboding and opened into roaring declamation.

Mark Markham, the revered accompanist, was attentive and sensitive through most of Sunday’s recital, though he had a rough beginning. Oddly for a pianist of his experience, Markham sounded uncomfortable in the Schubert set, with especially stiff playing in “Die Fischermädchen.”

Nelson’s selection of excerpts from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel felt like a more natural fit. He offered radiant warmth and lush phrasing in the romantic flourishing of “Youth and Love,” followed by fond, tender reminiscences in “Bright Is the Ring of Words.” The rough bristles of Nelson’s voice were an ideal complement to the folk element of Vaughan Williams’s cycle.

Like Nelson, Crocetto is a singer of enormous power, and the auditorium at the Morgan can be tough on big-voiced sopranos. The hard acoustic of Gilder Lehrman Hall made her impressive top grating, an unfortunate distraction from what was otherwise an excellent performance.

She began with Liszt’s three Petrarch sonnets, sung with gorgeous Italianate style. In these invested readings Crocetto displayed a deep textual connection and flashed an astonishing, colorful, burning chest voice. There were pangs of anguished longing in “Benedetto sia’l giorno,” while “I vidi in terra angelici costumi” was a more straightforwardly lovely romance. In these selections we got to hear Markham’s real brilliance as well, as he turned the grand tapestry of Liszt’s accompaniment into rolling cascades of sound.

A set of Rachmaninoff songs showed off all the best of Crocetto’s qualities as a singer. “How fair this spot” highlighted the rich, dark velvet of her middle voice, and she sang with breathless passion in the “Fragment from A. Musset.” Most impressive of all was her account of “Sing to me not, beautiful maiden,” which was poised, yet ravishing in the depth of its emotion.

As is traditional at these London recitals, the two singers offered a pair of duets. “Mira, di acerbe lagrime,” Leonora and Di Luna’s duet from Act IV of Il Trovatore, could have used a little more electricity, but “If I loved you,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, showed both singers at their best. Crocetto achieved a brighter, easier sound than she had all afternoon, while Nelson found his best oaken tone.

Nelson returned for one more Rodgers item, “Some enchanted evening” from South Pacific, given with a gorgeous burgundy tone, and deep affection in his singing. He lost the words in the bridge, but this rendition was so earnest it hardly mattered. Then Crocetto dropped every jaw in the house with her spectacular take on “Can’t help lovin’ dat man”—originally from Show Boat, but here given in a steamy, jazzy version, showing off a superb belt.

There’s an unaffected familiarity to these recitals at the Morgan that is endearing. Before taking her place for “If you loved me,” Crocetto shared a laugh with Markham and then confessed to the audience, “We have a lot of inside jokes up here, sorry.” Indeed, before what seemed like about half of the items on the program, Nelson and Crocetto had a quiet joke and a grin with their pianist. On a relentlessly bleak day in New York, ninety casual minutes of song in an intimate space made for a perfect Sunday afternoon.

The next recital of the George London Foundation will be given December 10 at the Morgan Library, featuring soprano Marjorie Owens and baritone Quinn Kelsey.

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