Edinburgh International Festival – Katarina Karnéus & Johan Ullén

Intorno all’idol’ mio
Pergolesi (attrib.)
Se tu m’ami
Zigeunerlieder, Op.103
Six Songs, Op.25
The Love Songs of Hafiz, Op.24
Du meines Herzens Krönelein, Op.21/2; Ruhe, meine Seele, Op.27/1; Kling!, Op.48/3

Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano) & Johan Ullén (piano)

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 27 August, 2008
Venue: Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

Katarina KarnéusKatarina Karnéus has long been valued for her unaffected and stylish singing and her pleasantly reserved stage manner. It was brave to begin a morning recital within a busy festival with a lullaby; however this was an adventurous programme comprising an intelligently paced and varied collection of songs and arias by composers of many different nationalities.

The first two songs originated from an 1894 anthology published by Schirmer which was in turn based on a three-volume publication of arie antiche edited by Alessandro Parisotti published by Ricordi. (This according to Tim Carter’s interesting programme note; that the programme book contained excellent notes by six different writers, all specialists in their fields, was lavish indeed!)

As Carter indicates, the piece attributed to Pergolesi may well be a “fake” penned by Parisotti himself. Having lulled us with the long-breathed lines of Cesti’s sustained lullaby, Karnéus quickly changed the mood with this lighter piece’s simple trills and decorations, displaying her mellow voice to advantage. Lightness was then cast off with the elegiac Respighi.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)We then moved on to the more Impressionistic Poulenc, whose ability to catch different moods within miniature settings was extremely skilful. Here we had the wonderful contrasts of the intense and mournful middle song ‘C’est ainsi que tu es’ with the outer songs and their faster tempos and exuberance. Johan Ullén’s relish of the exoticism inherent in Poulenc’s piano-accompaniment was a delight, the scintillating lilt of ‘Paganini’ particularly fun.

The beginning of the Brahms cycle did not find either performer entirely at ease. Karnéus seemed very slightly breathy and also to be ‘pushing’ the tone a little; Ullén was perhaps somewhat emphatic to start. It felt as if the first two songs did not fit comfortably within the singer’s range, making her appear tentative, and that the accompanist was trying to compensate.

Johan UllénHowever this unease was only temporary and by the time they got to ‘Brauner Bursche führt zum Tanze’ both seemed to be in their stride again; she evidently relishing the humour of the text and playing it up a little, he slightly exaggerating the heaviness of the lilting rhythmic turns of the accompaniment. This interplay was very much characteristic of the pairing throughout the recital, each performer seeming very attuned to the other’s roles.

After the interval came Grieg – and this was Karnéus at her most understandably idiomatic. The familiar ‘En Svane’ (A Swan) was simply intoned with its shimmering accompaniment allowed to set the atmosphere very evocatively. The falling cadences of the mournful ‘Stambogsrim’ showed up the singer’s mellow tones to advantage, and the chromatic pulsating theme of ‘Med en vandlilje’ (With a water-lily) was as enticingly sung as the watery accompaniment was played.

Szymanowski’s initial version of “The Love Songs of Hafiz” was set for voice and piano. The more familiar orchestral version (Opus 26), which Karnéus has recorded with Simon Rattle and the CBSO, contains three of these songs along with others from the same literary source. These first thoughts were all colourfully presented and both performers relished the exoticism of the composer’s complex writing.

Three songs by Richard Strauss finished the recital proper, with ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ being taken at a slow and perhaps too deliberate a pace. ‘Kling!’ was nicely bright though, and brought the recital to as sunny an end as the opening had been restful. Sibelius provided the unusual encore.

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