Elisabeth Starzinger

On the eve of 2000, the career of mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Starzinger is already well on its way. It was clear from her American debut at the Austrian Embassy Friday and Saturday that she is conscious of every dimension of her art. Her voice and bearing captured the essence of a diverse array of lieder by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Robert Stolz (an Austrian pupil of Engelbert Humperdinck).

The success of Starzinger's American debut was due in no small way to her sensitive pianist, Russell Ryan, who enlists the keyboard to extend vocal meaning but always as a partner. The two make an exceptional team.

From her opening Mozart set, Starzinger maintained an unerring sense of pitch and impressive control over the entirety of each song, while indulging in the critical details of timbre, dynamics and tempo that give meaning to the whole. She attained perhaps the most telling reaches of expressiveness in five Brahms lieder, as in his mesmerizing "Da unten im Tale."

Starzinger also has an uncanny sense of the way a composer gradually intensifies the meaning of a single word or phrase, particularly in Beethoven's "Freudvoll und Leidvoll." Though possessing an admirable level of technique, she needs to summon those vocal resources that make the ornate flourishes of Mozart's dramatic scena from "Idomeneo," for instance, sound extemporized rather than just mastered.--Cecelia Porter

Masterworks

The Masterworks Chorus and Orchestra showed itself off as a full-throated, disciplined instrument Saturday at St. Paul's Lutheran Church--but not until its concert of carols was nearly two-thirds done.

A dramatic, forthright reading of Charles Villiers Stanford's "Gloria in Excelsis" seemed to warm up the singers, who had been tentative and a bit light dramatically until that point. The group, under the direction of Stanley Engebretson, sounded both delicate and confident on the "Coventry Carol" that followed.

But the massed chorus may have been hiding some subpar voices. Several singers standing alone at the rear sounded weak during "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," and other singers had problems projecting forcefully during solos. Sopranos Sheri Reed-Crotty and Daniella Prepis, however, boasted piping clear tones in the upper register.

The musical soloists also had difficulty thrusting their own personalities into the music. Organist Theodore M. Guerrant proved the exception with a textured reading of J.S. Bach's "In Dulci Jubilo" that was by turns meditative and hopeful.

Reflecting the mixed nature of the performance, the Sonus Brass Quartet played in pleasingly bright tones, but its pitch was far from perfect. The group cleverly enhanced the familiar "Carol of the Bells" by throwing in a snatch of Dave Brubeck's jazz hit "Take Five."

--Alan Greenblatt

Clutch

Discussing his band's departure from a major label (not the first such split), Clutch vocalist Neil Fallon said recently that "none of them have figured out what to do with us." An unsuspecting patron walking in on the band's Black Sabbath-Primus-Killdozer mixture at the 9:30 club Saturday night might easily see why.

Originally from Germantown and now residing in West Virginia, the quartet burst directly into "Who Wants to Rock?" and continued asking that rhetorical question for nearly two hours. A musical bed made by the sludge riffs of guitarist Tim Sult and the pile-driving bass of Dan Maines was smoothed by the muscular, jazz-flecked drumming of Jean-Paul Gaster.

Fallon, the razor-throated front man, howled through Clutch classics such as "Spacegrass," "Binge and Purge," "One-Eyed Dollar" and the sly "Rock and Roll Outlaw." While the group's riffing occasionally seemed like overkill and Fallon's lyrics to songs like "The Soapmakers" were eerie and bizarre, it was manna for Clutch die-hards; indeed, the band has built a sizable following through such earsplitting feats.

Saturday's night's set wasn't myth-inspiring, but it had plenty of authoritative moments, notably a crunching new tune that seemed to be about Frankenstein.

The final blow of "Release the Kraken," however, tested the patience of even the biggest Clutchheads, metamorphosing into a go-go-flavored percussion hootenanny nearly 30 minutes long. For many in the room, heading for the warmth of their beds seemed a more tantalizing prospect.

--Patrick Foster