BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Jac van Steen: Two Last Works [Bruckner 9 & Katarina Karnéus sings Four Last Songs]

Vier Letzte Lieder
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jac van Steen

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 27 May, 2011
Venue: St David’s Hall, Cardiff

Katarina KarnéusSt David’s Hall was the setting for Katarina Karnéus’s first major success, when she won the 1995 Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Since then, her periodic returns always constitute something of a homecoming, but this concert also marked Karnéus’s debut with Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”, a significant milestone in any singer’s career. Since Karnéus is a mezzo-soprano, and it’s mainly sopranos who compete for the honours with this cycle, her performance was of particular interest.

Karnéus’s strength is that she manages her tone so evenly right through her range. At the very opening of ‘Frühling’, the rich darkness she brought to the words “In dämmrigen Grüften” augured well – too often sopranos are barely audible in this early part – and from there the voice emerged into the light reflecting exactly the gist of Hermann Hesse’s words. Karnéus is an accomplished Lieder recitalist and it was the balance of sensitively projected words with a real intensity of feeling and vocal timbre that marked this interpretation. The highest part of Karnéus’s voice did not have quite the same mellifluous quality, but it didn’t sound effortful and she was able to cut confidently through the orchestral texture at its most dense. It was in the third song, ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, that she was at her most expressive, shaping the lyrical sweep of phrases with the agility and warmth of a clarinet and with the voice soaring free.

Jac van Steen. Photograph: Ross CohenIf there was a disappointment, it was that, although Jac van Steen achieved a natural fluidity, the subtle gradations of tonal colouring were sometimes missing, but Tim Thorne’s horn solo at the end of ‘September’ had a haunting beauty while Lesley Hatfield delivered the violin solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ with brisk efficiency rather than tenderness. It was in the postlude to the final song, ‘Im Abendrot’, after Karnéus had conjured the aura of sunset and realised the mood which represents both content at a life well-lived and a weary resignation, that van Steen brought a similarly contemplative feel to the playing: the lower strings gently resonant and counterbalancing the high trills of the piccolos. It set a seal on the whole sequence.

Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony represented another last work, though this time unfinished. Jac van Steen paced the massive first movement with care, finding a tempo which could carry the requisite solemnity and nobility without sounding overly portentous yet allowing the brasses to luxuriate in their periodic blazes of sound. Such massive works never work as well in the smaller space of BBCNOW’s new base, Hoddinott Hall, so hearing the orchestra in full flood in the St David’s Hall acoustic was also something of a homecoming and there was a splendour here that could only have been Bruckner. Yet nothing in this first movement quite prepares one for the uncompromising nature of the scherzo. Van Steen made the initial pizzicatos quite playful so that the pounding dissonances which follow – given an even harder edge with the timpani’s hard-stick attack – had real ferocity. The spirited trio brings respite, but the return to the harshly repeated dissonances was curious for offering a glimpse far into the future as though maximalist Bruckner and a minimalist of another age were slogging it out.

After this, this underlying angst of the Adagio was all the more apparent, with the hymning of the four Wagner tubas sounding less religioso than questioning. Indeed, the emotional tenor of this movement – not the finale Bruckner envisioned, though made to carry the weight of finality by van Steen – proved thought-provoking. Accustomed as we are to accepting the idea of Bruckner’s religious conviction as sustaining him to the glorious end, here was a degree of anguish and pain that suggested that Bruckner did not “go gentle into that good night”, to quote Dylan Thomas’s poem to his father. There were certainly moments where he seemed to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and it made for compelling listening.

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