Nicole Cabell presents an array of vocal delights at Northeastern

Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm

By Michael Cameron

Nicole Cabell performed a  recital Friday night at Northeastern University.
Nicole Cabell performed a recital Friday night at Northeastern University.

Not unlike soprano Nicole Cabell’s recital at Ravinia this summer, a moderate-sized audience of her devoted local fans turned out Friday to hear a splendid performance teeming with an array of vocal delights. Yet in both concerts there were aspects of the program that made a complete account of her many virtues difficult to fully appreciate.

The July program focused entirely on the works of Ricky Ian Gordon, a talented composer whose songs don’t quite justify such extended examination. The bulk of the program Friday consisted of works composed for voice and orchestra, presented with piano reductions that markedly limited listeners’ full appreciation of the music’s power.

Pianist Susan Tang ably tackled the often awkward arrangements, but a concert grand can only go so far when a central aspect of a composers’ vision is a nearly limitless orchestral palette. On rare occasions (Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka comes to mind) a piano reduction makes up for the loss in specific color by boosting other inherent attributes. But for this program, less was less.

The dryish, clinical acoustics of Northeastern University’s auditorium are not particularly flattering, but the soprano’s radiant voice scarcely needs such a setting to be appreciated.

There was little to find fault in Cabell’s involved and compelling account of Britten’s Les Illuminations. Time and again she caught the hallucinatory aura of Arthur Rimbaud’s suite of prose poems, realizing each with a bracing mix of intelligence, arrogance, seduction, and defiance. Her French was clear and precise, if not the last word in idiomatic authenticity. The poet sometimes chose words more for their sound than for their specific meaning, an approach that might call for more exaggerated enunciation.

But there was easily enough variation in color and dynamic detail to bring the non-linear text to life. Even with her full array of interpretive insight, the presentation unintentionally underlined the necessity of Britten’s orchestral scoring for a full appreciation of his creation.

Legendary tenor and Britten’s lifelong partner Peter Pears was the inspiration for “Being Beauteous,” the seventh song of the set. The soprano deftly negotiated the shifting colors and restless dissonance as this paean to the human form morphs into a ghoulish tableau. But the composer’s orchestration is at least as relevant as the vocal line, leaving the experienced listener to fill in the aural blanks from memory, and the novice to struggle with an incomplete presentation.

In Mahler’s “Das himmlische Leben” (from his collection of orchestral songs Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and used later in his Fourth Symphony) the composer’s use of wide-ranging instrumental color is intrinsic to this portrait of idealized rural life. With the downsized keyboard accompaniment, the ear was fully engaged in the soprano’s evocation of the picturesque text. While the pace seemed slightly hurried, Cabell’s luxuriant, golden reading was a delight.

Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was also conceived for an orchestra, yet the piano version loses relatively little in the transference. Tang was understated and supportive, while Cabell assigned just the right mix of gentle nostalgia and alluring lyricism to James Agee’s text.

Gounod’s Jewel Song (“Ô Dieu! que de bijoux…”) from Faust was rendered with gusto, a picture perfect depiction of the breathless Marguerite intoxicated by her glittering reflection in a mirror.

A set of Fernando Obradors’ songs from Canciones clásicas españolas made a fine, frivolous foil to the rest of the program. In both style and language, Cabell seemed utterly at home in the idiom. She lovingly spun the languid melodies of “¿Corazón, porqué pasáis…”, and negotiated the florid passagework in “Chiquitita la novia” with intoxicating bravura. A tender reading of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi was the sole encore.

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