Katarina Karnéus sings Grieg, Rangström and Sibelius

Grieg, Rangström, Sibelius: Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano). Wigmore Hall 7.4.2011 (KC)

Edvard Grieg: Six Poems by Henrik Ibsen Op. 25
Ture Rangström: Three Songs to words by Bo Bergman
Jean Sibelius: Five Songs Op. 37
Edvard Grieg: Haugtussa (Troll maidens) Op. 67

Katarina Karnéus has supreme quality and a rare degree of musicianship. Her voice is an instrument to treasure. In some respects this is surprising, since her voice is not instantly recognisable or immediately seductive. What is attractive – and ultimately seductive – is her artistry. She strengthens her birth-endowed instrument with a high degree of intelligence and emotional sensitivity, both inborn. This makes her a singer of rare distinction. Her acute consciousness of verbal and musical nuance produces subtle adaptations of mood, context, words, melody and ambience.

Julius Drake is her match – an accompanist of supreme quality. He is alert to changes of mood and style in the music and meticulously sensitive to Karnéus’ changes of tone. (In contrast – to my ears – was the highly-esteemed Geoffrey Parsons, who, while eminently reliable in establishing solid ground for the soloist, was always pedestrian in purveying the accompanist’s contribution to the music’s content). Julius Drake is superb on both counts. Thus this Karnéus-Drake partnership is a duo where – confounding arithmetic – two are one.

Few singers would select Grieg, Rangström and Sibelius for an evening’s recital. Scandinavian vocal music is hardly a great draw. It is unlikely to fill the Wigmore Hall. Yet, confounding expectation, the hall was packed. The acclaim, moreover, was lusty and spirited – people stood, amidst clamour.

At a stroke, Karnéus and Drake announced Grieg as a major song-writer. He wrote almost 200, mostly for his wife. We heard from two groups: the first comprising 6 poems by Ibsen, dating from 1876 when Grieg was in his thirties and the second being a selection of 8 from Arne Garborg’s 71 poems about troll-maidens, composed almost 20 years later. These songs have a domestic intimacy of emotion. They evoke dimly-lit, oil-lamp illuminated parlours. The appropriate sound is therefore quiet and private, with occasional outbursts of greater strength.

These songs have quality. For the most part, they are indoor songs, written in exquisite recollection of the outdoors, in many, varied aspects – a swan, a water lily, a sparrow, a bush of bilberries. The one boisterous exception is ‘Killingdans’ from ‘Haugtussa’, celebrating a day out in the mountain foothills on a summer’s day. The Grieg on show is a Grieg at home – rather shy, but lyrically intelligent and worth getting to know. You’d hardly credit that he also wrote the Piano Concerto and the incidental music for Peer Gynt.

Ture Rangström is a songwriter whom the Swedes hold in high esteem. We heard three of his 250 or so songs. Their worth was evident, their composition capable and assured. They were good, solid fare. An individual voice was lacking. The poems were set to an overall tone, even though the subject matter ranged from a quiet, subdued prayer to the night, to a celebration of Pan in the golden hush of noon and a young maiden’s passionate imploring of the new moon to render her beloved to her.

The five Sibelius songs were clearly the work of a genius. A mighty musical endowment was at work here, struggling to burst out from the poetry’s verbal constraints. The accompaniment for each song seemed to be a primal creative force, not quite decided where to go. These were poems which were in a hair’s breadth of having greatness thrust upon them and not quite up to shouldering such weight. Does that make any sense? I mean that these were powerful, but-not-great songs written by a great composer. It is to the credit of Katarina Karnéus and Julius Drake that the driving, robust intensity of Sibelius’ magnitude came through so impressively.

Ken Carter