Sasha Cooke’s entrancing Berlioz songs, a bewitching premiere and masterpieces of Debussy and Ravel: thanks to De Waart and the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke

Salina Fisher: Tupaia (premiere)
Berlioz: Les nuits d’été, Op. 7
Debussy: La mer
Ravel: Boléro

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 21 April 2018, 7:30 pm

Though this turned out a great concert with an enthusiastic reception of Ravel’s Boléro at the end, I had heard a number of less than excited reactions to the programme beforehand. There’s an ‘attitude’ surrounding Boléro, and not the whole world loves Debussy as much as the music historians generally do. That left Les nuits d’ été, but then there are still a sad few who have inherited an earlier, unregenerate attitude towards Berlioz.

Sasha Cooke will be remembered for her April 2012 concert with the NZSO, singing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Which I reviewed with very happily, and later that month she sang Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, in a concert that also included La mer (does Sasha have a psychic connection with the sea?).

But the programme had begun with a new commission from Salina Fisher, getting in early to celebrate next year’s 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand. Tupaia was the Tahitian with an extraordinary knowledge of Pacific navigation who was persuaded by Joseph Banks to join Cook’s expedition seeking ‘the great southern continent’, and reaching New Zealand (a bit of a let-down).

The composer wrote that her work drew “inspiration from the idea of celestial navigation: the constant and gradual shift in perspective necessary to perceive the ‘rise and fall’ of stars and ultimately to move forward”. It began with that low almost inaudible sound that opens Also sprach Zarathustra, expectant, mysterious, mostly from strings but then with chimes from the high register of the marimba, drums and eventually brass and other instruments. The arrival of alto flute lent a touch of clarity to the sound suggesting clear skies in a starry night.

Though she didn’t succumb to any obvious or hackneyed sea-depicting devices, Fisher’s music rose and fell over its eight minute duration, evoking generally subdued imagery, undefined, unpretentious, though undoubtedly inducing a sense of isolation in an empty ocean.

Les nuits d’ été  
Berlioz’s great cycle of six songs by Théophile Gautier was for me the main and most engrossing work on the programme. Berlioz is my favourite French composer, and I’m not given to ranking people; but aware of the long years when so many critics and music historians determined not to recognise his genius, when I had fallen in love with the Symphonie fantastique at an early age, has made me a rather fervent proselyte. And it has helped feed a consuming francophilia in general.

If I’d found Sasha Cooke’s Mahler songs so enrapturing six years ago, I found each of these melodies, in turn, beautifully articulated, restrained, illuminating so perfectly both the melodies and Berlioz’s subtle and sympathetic orchestrations. Le spectre de la rose ranks as one of the most inspired and moving creations, right up with the most lovely of Schubert and Schumann Lieder (and Berlioz composed his cycle in 1840, Schumann’s year of Lieder: something in the air?). Her modest and undemonstrative singing through its long lines captured the magical sense of Gautier’s poems without artifice or unnecessary emphasis, even in the second, more intense stanza.

And in Sur les lagunes her warm and rich mezzo voice found beautiful engagement, hovering as it does around the lower register, yet rising in passion to match the words of the last lines.

After both Le spectre and Lagunes there was clapping, hesitant perhaps but driven, I felt, not through unawareness of the conventions, but by an overwhelming compulsion; I felt the same.

There’s a kind of recitative element in Absence, immaculate, poignant, this one reveals the lost love that is perhaps at the heart of the entire cycle; Cooke’s slow, aching interpretation with its long pauses was so breath-taking that even the impulse to clap its exquisite performance was stilled.

Au cimitière, rather than a funereal utterance such as one might expect, expresses more complex, varied emotions and here her voice found a more overt spirit; each stanza in turn so individual, interpreting so acutely the sense of the lines. Finally, L’île inconnue, ends the cycle with the most up-beat song, yet again it’s discreet, a model of sympathetic orchestration, characteristic of French orchestral clarity and consideration for the singer, and with keen attention to the audibility of every syllable. Whatever the great strengths of the music of the second half, this music and this singer left Les nuitsd’été for me the best thing of the evening.

La mer is probably, after L’après-midi d’un faune, the most played of Debussy’s orchestral works; and I wonder why we don’t hear all or even parts of Images more often, or Nocturnes.

I had the strange, fleeting impression of a connection between the opening bars of La mer and Salina Fisher’s piece. Even though here were harp and timpani and cellos… capturing dawn over a calm sea; but Debussy employs more overt visual impressions, though I have rarely found it useful or even interesting to seek extra-musical notions to embellish music or assist appreciation of it. Fortunately, this music, and its superbly careful and balanced playing under De Waart needs no props. While not in any way denigrating the orchestral virtuosity of Debussy’s foreign contemporaries, schooled in other musical environments, the traditions passed down through the Paris Conservatoire from Berlioz (not that he taught there), lived through Franck and Lalo, Saint-Saëns and Bizet, D’Indy, Chausson, Fauré…. to Debussy and Ravel.

Clapping again broke out at the end of De l’aube à midi sur la mer: deserved for sure, but did they think at about eight minutes, it was all over?

The performance was beautifully balanced, again orchestral parts integrated so that brass, under perfect control, can be heard so consummately judged in the space, without the engineering that gives a rather dishonest impression of the sound to the record listener.

Finally Boléro. No matter how often one might have heard it – and live performances are not that common – there is something truly hypnotic about its sheer repetitiveness and I have never failed to feel its unique force in a live performance in the concert hall (on record, it’s a quite different matter). Ravel himself remarked that though there was no music in it, “it was a masterpiece”.

Except that there is music in it. It simply takes the most fundamental device in most music – the repetition of a theme, usually several themes, over and over, and generally varied in many ways (ever counted the number of times principal themes in many of Schubert’s works are played, with little change?). With Boléro his tune is varied at every reiteration – through its instrumentation: where is the compositional law forbidding that?

This was paced with perfect discretion, deriving through a steady if imperceptible crescendo along with the bewitching instrumental additions, a riveting performance. There was no doubt, noting the stentorian applause and shouting, that it had again worked its ‘illegitimate’ magic on most of us.

One thought on “Sasha Cooke’s entrancing Berlioz songs, a bewitching premiere and masterpieces of Debussy and Ravel: thanks to De Waart and the NZSO

  1. Roger Neill says:

    Berlioz’s wonderful Nuit d’ete is not so easy to pull off in my experience. Too much vibrato can make it sound muddy and ‘oratorio voice’ much the same. So hats off to Sasha Cooke!

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