Music has traditionally been the chosen arts medium to contemplate the topic of death and the afterlife, from grandly scaled choral-orchestral Requiems to intimate art songs. To explore this topic, San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling chose a pair of Richard Strauss works, the youthful tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” and his valedictory “Four Last Songs” for soprano and orchestra.
The young American soprano Nicole Cabell gave a commanding, emotionally rich account of “The
Four Last Songs,” soaring confidently through the composer’s sinuous, stratospheric lines. Her polished declamation of the German poetry (Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff) displayed the detail you expect from a singer in an intimate lieder recital, yet she unleashed ample power to transcend the orchestra’s mighty crescendos.
In the 2012 fall season, I heard this soprano sing an amazing Juliet to Joyce DiDonato’s Romeo in Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues at San Francisco Opera. In my opinion, Cabell has an extraordinary voice: powerful dramatic strength, suave lyric line, and the flexibility to handle the filigree of coloratura. I commend the Symphony for bringing her in for this assignment, especially since the company’s record of hiring A-list sopranos has left something to be desired.
I would be remiss if I failed to point out guest Concertmaster Angela Fuller Heyde’s nuanced, glowing obbligato solo in the third Strauss song and her entrancing solo flights in “Death and Transfiguration.” Ling made the most of Strauss’ mercurial mood swings in his colorfully orchestrated tone poem, and on Saturday (Feb. 7) the orchestra responded adroitly to his meticulous and deftly modulated direction. The roiling themes from the contrabass and cello sections midway through the piece showed laudable muscular drive, and the orchestra’s more cohesive ensemble I take as a new plateau for the symphony.
Ling decided to have the soprano enter during the final apotheosis of “Death and Transfiguration” in order to transition immediately into the “Four Last Songs,” a sage move that linked the emotional tenor of the two works. His deep conviction and probing insight about these two pieces was evident at every turn.
Principal Clarinet Sheryl Renk’s opening movement of the Mozart Clarinet
Concerto, K. 622, had everything to make it heavenly: effervescent arpeggios, luminescent cantabile lines, and shimmering dynamic contrasts, all delivered with her impeccable finesse and a sympathetic accompaniment by the orchestra. But her tempo of the Adagio middle movement proved just a shade too slow, and all of the magic left the stage. Renk had no problem sustaining Mozart’s languid themes at this tempo, of course, but the mood seemed constrained rather than serene. Much of the exuberance of the opening movement returned with the finale, but not all of the momentum.
Mozart’s Overture to his early opera Idomeneo, K. 366, opened the program on a convivial note, although it is not an opera overture that stands convincingly on its own as a concert piece.