If you’ve never heard the name Karen Cargill, let this review be your notification.
The Scottish mezzo-soprano had a grand and long-overdue Washington debut recital Tuesday evening, presented in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater by Vocal Arts D.C. The program of brooding Romantic music by Gustav and Alma Mahler, Richard Wagner and Edvard Grieg hit her commanding and disciplined voice in its sweet spot.
Asked in an interview last year why she’s singing so much Mahler, Cargill responded, “Well, it’s where my voice is at.” This was true on her recording of Gustav’s five “Rückert Lieder” and Alma’s “Fünf Lieder,” released last year by Linn Records, and it was true live. Alma’s “In Meines Vaters Garten” brought out Cargill’s luscious, full-bodied chest voice and her fluid sense of rubato, ably assisted by pianist Simon Lepper. Cargill, whose top could be vibrato heavy at full volume, applied a light, pure tone in that range on the song’s tender refrain (“Sweet dream!”), equally sensuous in Gustav’s “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” or bleak in his “Um Mitternacht.”
Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” also elicited the powerful side of Cargill’s voice, in “Stehe still!” and “Schmerzen,” but the more controlled, dulcet tone was even more striking, especially in the gloom-darkened rendition of “Im Treibhaus” and “Träume,” with their overtones of “Tristan und Isolde.”
Finally, in Grieg’s six German songs, Op. 48, Cargill let down her hair, with airy and flirtatious readings of “Gruß” and “Lauf der Welt” and a sexy voluptuousness in “The secretive nightingale.” Cargill charmed further with an encore from “Songs of the Hebrides” — “I had to bring a bit of Scotland with me,” Cargill quipped — followed by “When You’re Feeling Like Expressing Your Affection,” a jingle composed by Benjamin Britten for British Telephone.
Downey is a freelance writer.