Eric Cutler in New York

Poème d’un jour, Op.21
À Chloris; Le Rossignol des lilas; Paysage; Infidélité
Deità silvane
Shadow of the Blues
Four Songs for Tenor and Piano
Despite and Still, Op.41

Eric Cutler (tenor) & Bradley Moore (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 17 February, 2006
Venue: Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York

This was Eric Cutler’s Carnegie Hall recital debut. Cutler, the 2005 Richard Tucker Award winner, has sung numerous roles at the Metropolitan Opera, and has a burgeoning career in the major opera houses. This season will see his debuts in London at the Royal Opera (as Ernesto in “Don Pasquale”) and in the Wigmore Hall, as well as appearances in Europe, Australia and the United States.

In making the transition from a large opera house to an intimate recital stage, a singer must make adjustments for differences in repertory, the size of the hall, and the necessity of appearing as oneself rather than as an operatic character. Cutler dealt more effectively with the first two of these challenges than with the third. He generally restrained his vocal power, allowing both for the delicacy of most of the songs on this programme and for the intimate, 268-seat space in which he was performing. His big voice was only occasionally in evidence, and it was not until his concluding encore, Richard Strauss’s “Cäcilie”, that it came through in full measure. Cutler seemed a bit insecure on stage, however, never settling into a comfortable recital persona.

French songs made up the first two groupings on the programme, with Fauré’s three-song cycle, “Poème d’un jour”, being followed by four songs by Reynaldo Hahn. Although Cutler’s voice was a bit quivery in the first two Fauré songs and he transposed a line of text in the third, his performance of the cycle did justice to the romantic texts and Fauré’s lyrical melodies. The third Fauré song, “Adieu”, was particularly lovely, with Cutler beautifully sustaining the final note as it died away.

In “À Chloris”, the first of the Hahn songs, Moore’s playing of the piano’s repeating ornamented baroque figure nicely set off the purity and simplicity of Cutler’s vocal line. His voice was somewhat darker and romantic in “Le rossignol des lilas” and “Paysage”, but still produced a glowing upper-register sound at significant moments.

Although Cutler’s diction in the French songs was good, he seemed more comfortable singing in Italian and English for the rest of the evening.

Cutler and Moore were in top form in Respighi’s “Deità silvane” (Woodland Deities), which concluded the first half. In this delightful but seldom heard cycle, the piano and voice share story-telling duties almost equally, and Moore held up his end of the partnership, playing the dramatic preludes and postludes admirably. In “I fauni” (The Fauns) Cutler built the drama up to the song’s final image of the fleeing nymphs’ “ardent lips like blazing flowers”. “Musica in horto” (Garden Music) juxtaposes repeating two-note figures in the piano with the vocal line, which again builds to a big finish, followed by a brief and dramatic postlude. Cutler then used dynamic variation to underscore the colourful textual descriptions of the dancing nymph, “Egle” (Aegle), as Moore played the waltz-time accompaniment. Moore’s playing duly emphasised the naturalistic character of Respighi’s accompaniments in the final two songs of the cycle, first mimicking the rippling of a stream in “Acqua” (Water). Then, in “Crepuscolo” (Dusk), after Cutler’s powerful climax faded with the lengthening shadows that mark the dying of the day, Moore portrayed dusk turning to night in the beautifully played postlude.

The second half was devoted to song cycles by three American composers. John Musto’s “Shadow of the Blues” consists of four jazz-influenced settings of poems by Langston Hughes that reflect various aspects of African-American life and experience. In “Silhouette”, Cutler’s lightness of tone aptly captured the bitter sarcasm of Hughes’s take on the darkest of subjects. In “Litany”, framed by a lengthy piano prelude and postlude, Cutler turned up the volume for dramatic emphasis without straining, and then seamlessly made the transition back to softness. Then, as Moore deftly played the highly syncopated accompaniment in the concluding “Could Be”, Cutler altered his posture and demeanour to lament the loss of his watch – and of the sweetheart who pawned it.

Previn’s cycle, simply titled “Four Songs”, also has an interesting piano part, which is not surprising since he wrote it for himself (and premiered it with tenor Anthony Dean Griffey at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in 2004). Its texts – the first two by Philip Larkin and the last two by William Carlos Williams – are lengthier and weightier than the short and jaunty Hughes poems set by Musto, yet their subject matter is ultimately less consequential. Cutler’s performance of Previn’s melodic songs captured the spirit of the texts quite well, aided by Moore’s accomplished playing.

The programme’s concluding segment, Barber’s cycle “Despite and Still”, to poems by Robert Graves, Theodore Roethke and James Joyce, was the evening’s highlight. Cutler’s singing matched the varied texts extremely well, excelling particularly in the three Graves settings. He remained very much in character vocally as a poet reflecting on the burdens imposed by the creative urge in “A Last Song”, and he gave an extraordinarily touching and affecting account of Jesus’s sojourn “In the Wilderness”. The final song, which lends its title to the cycle, speaks of a couple’s determination to love “Despite and Still”, with both singer and piano building to a dramatic and dissonant climax.

Cutler and Moore had prepared only a single encore, Barber’s ethereal “O Boundless, Boundless Evening”, but when the audience demanded more, they essayed from memory a full-throated rendition of Richard Strauss’s “Cäcilie”, clearly whetting his audience’s appetite for more of the same in future recitals.

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