Karita Mattila & Martin Katz at Carnegie Hall

Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire
Four Dream Songs, Op.30Marx
Nocturne; Waldseligkeit; Selige Nacht; Valse de Chopin; Hat dich die Liebe berührt

Karita Mattila (soprano) & Martin Katz (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 10 December, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Karita Mattila. Photograph: Lauri ErikssonKarita Mattila was in fine voice for her Carnegie Hall recital, yet despite her vocal proficiency and the excellent accompaniments of Martin Katz, this rather unusual program proved less successful than any of their recent visits to this venue.

Mattila devoted the first half to song-cycles by Poulenc and Debussy, each set to texts by a single poet. She began with Poulenc’s Banalités to five poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, an odd choice of opener, both because this music is better suited to a lower voice than Mattila’s and also would be better placed later in a recital. Indeed, the cycle’s second song, ‘Hôtel’, is very frequently performed as an encore piece. Mattila did make much of these songs, however, capturing the wittiness of the parable of ‘Chanson d’Orkenise’, the languor of ‘Hôtel’, the playful patter and rhymes of ‘Fagnes Wallonie’, the joyousness of ‘Voyage à Paris’, and the brooding atmosphere of ‘Sanglots’.

The longer and weightier Debussy cycle came off less successfully, although there was much loveliness in the vocal line, and Katz’s playing was consistently idiomatic and satisfying. These rather lengthy songs lack wide contrasts of mood, and Mattila never managed the difficult task of bringing to life the cycle as a whole. Although she was at her best in the last two songs, the introspective ‘Recueillement’ (Meditation) and the philosophical ‘La mort des amants’ (The Death of the Lovers), with Baudelaire’s uplifting imagery of the afterlife, the cumulative impact of the first half of the program was too much of a good (but not great) thing.

The highlight came after intermission, when Mattila, having changed from a silver gown to one in a pale purple, sang her countryman Aulis Sallinen’s Four Dream Songs, set to poems by Paavo Haavikk. This text and music was later used by the composer in his opera Ratsumies (The Horseman). Mattila’s deep engagement with these songs was evident as she projected their moody ruminations on various aspects of dreaming and death. Haavikk’s poetry is rich in alliteration and juxtaposition of similar-sounding words, and Mattila’s clear articulation allowed even non-Finnish-speaking listeners to discern and appreciate, at least to some degree, much of this wordplay. Katz was a perfect partner, playing the dissonant accompaniments with both delicacy and strength.

The recital concluded with five Lieder by Joseph Marx. These early-twentieth-century songs are something of a throwback to Romanticism, but also reflect influences of the contemporaneous Impressionist movement. Mattila’s atmospheric performances made a case for giving Marx’s songs – he wrote about 150 in all – a more-prominent place in the repertoire, but they still came across as rather conventional and did not provide an emphatic end to the recital. In the first three songs, some aspect of nature – the scent of a linden blossom, the wind and moonlight – is connected with love. In Valse de Chopin, Katz set a wild triple-time tempo as Mattila voiced the self-referential text in which the commedia dell’arte character Pierrot sings of the waltz as a dance of death – fierce, exulting, sweet, yearning, melancholy, then sweet and yearning again. She brought the program to a close with Marx’s best-known song, the tender Hat dich die Liebe berührt (If Love has Touched You).

The audience’s reaction had been rather restrained throughout, but it exploded with cheers and applause following Mattila’s first encore, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady in which she twirled around as Katz pounded out an interlude before the lyric’s final repetition. As has been her custom, she concluded with a traditional Finnish song, Minun kultani kaunis on (My Gal is So Pretty), in an arrangement by Ralf Gothóni.

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