“If You Love for Beauty” = ADAMS: Am I in Your light?; CHAUSSON: Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer; HANDEL: E vivo Ancora (Ariodante); Frondi tenere e belle (Xerxes); MAHLER: Rückert Lieder – Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano/ Colburn Orch./ Yuhuda Gilad – Yarlung Records 14148, 67:58 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

For those who do not know of Sasha Cooke, though she has been on the scene now really for over five years, she achieved some degree of notoriety in her performance as Kitty Oppenheimer, for which she and the others enjoyed a Grammy Award for Sony’s DVD Met production. Her European debut was in the same work at the English National Opera, and she was the perfect voice for the role, recreating the best aria in the opera for this recording, her nighttime song to J. Robert as they are preparing for sleep. General comments about her voice cover everything in this recital; she is extremely focused in her presentation, with a vibrato that is fast, almost old school, completely under control and variable according to need. Tonal qualities are superb, with rich coloring and resonant partials. There is little sense of effort in her transitional effects in long jumps, and her sense of legato and line, to say nothing of a wonderful penchant for effective and long breath control, is excellent.

I am a little surprised at her choice of Poem of Love and the Sea for a recital debut, of which this is. The Chausson is a space-sucker, and 30 minutes is a lot to devote to any piece on a debut. But it is also demanding and perfectly suited for her chocolaty interpretation. Singing as good as this deserves such a long piece. The Handel works show that she has a decided affinity for this music (and the orchestra is reduced as well in a period practice nod) and it is here that we hear her extraordinary ability at long, gracefully held notes.

Mahler’s Rückert Lieder give the disc its name even though the Chausson takes the largest slice of the pie. Here Cooke is at her most seductive, Fridrich Rückert’s smoky lyrics almost post- modern in their sensibilities instead of someone born in 1766, and Mahler years ahead of his time in his broadly expansive interpretative gestures. Cooke glides through this music with an affinity for both, and the results are one of the finest on record.

Yarlung Records is known for its discreet two mono or one single stereo microphone setups (and gold CDs), not a lot different from the beginning of the CD era when Nimbus Records was experimenting with reduced microphone setup as well to stunning results (don’t believe me? Listen to William Boughton and the Philhamonia in The Planets on NI70706 from 1988). Here they confess they cheat a bit, using two mics for Sasha Cooke and two to reinforce the percussion and winds. The results are excellent, though Cooke is a bit close—you won’t mind and maybe not notice, but the overall quality of the sound rivals just about any stereo-only SACD I have ever heard, simply stunning in its clarity and overall expanse of sound. I need to mention the excellent contributions of the Colburn Orchestra and Maestro Gilad, the former top notch in its technical and tonal qualities, with sensitive and pointed direction by the latter. This is an essential disc.

—Steven Ritter