Despite Downer Material, Soprano Karita Mattila Connects With San Francisco Audience

United StatesUnited States  Poulenc, Debussy, Sallinen, Marx: Karita Mattila (soprano), Martin Katz (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 6.12.2011 (HS)

Poulenc’s Banalités, a mixed-bag of songs, concludes with the song “Sanglots” (“Sobs”). Debussy’s Cing poèmes de Baudelaire ends with “Le mort des amants” (“The death of the lovers”), and Sallinen’s Four Dream Songs are all about “the transitoriness of life,” according to the program notes for Karita Mattila’s San Francisco Performances recital Tuesday night.

Thank heavens for the Finnish soprano’s outsized personality, stunning voice and concomitant stage presence — enhanced by a form-fitting cloth-of-silver gown in the first half and a gorgeous blue and violet number in honor of Finnish Independence Day in the second. The exquisite piano collaboration of Martin Katz added another plus. With those qualities, the depressing messages from the program faded into the background.

One could, if one wished, simply luxuriate in the rich, confident sounds, the seamless legato, the pinpoint control of pitch and dynamics and oh-so-human interpretation of the text. If the mark of a great lieder singer is the ability to bring sense to the words and life to the music, Mattila does it spectacularly. And though it’s not considered totally right to sing French songs with quite the breadth and richness of sound Mattila brings to the party, I can’t complain for a second about that. She conveyed the meaning with finesse, and it just sounded gorgeous.

In the Poulenc set, her relaxed, matter-of-fact approach to “Chanson d’Orkense” and “Hôtel” allowed us to ease into the evening’s proceedings. “Voyage à Paris” clearly framed the music’s yearning for something more. Mattila sustained the mood and the long, luxurious line in “Sanglot” breathtakingly.

The Debussy songs continued that emphasis on long, arching melodies, most notably in the opening “Le balcon” (“The balcony”) and the sustained calm of “Harmonie du soir” (“Evening harmony”) and in the fourth song, “Recuillement” (“Meditative calm”). The delicacy with which she and Katz faded at the finish of “La mort des amants” was exquisite. At that point, however, the count of quiet, sustained French songs may have been two or three too many for one half.

There was nothing restful about Aulis Sallinen’s songs, however. The Finnish composer employs enough dissonance to create a strong edge to the music, even as he carries the momentum forward by writing gratefully for the voice. The language, of course, presents no barriers for Mattila, who burrowed into the dark nature of songs such as “Dead horseman’s lullaby.” “Dreams, each within each” started gently and rose to a thrilling climax, a chance for Mattila to let loose her operatic voice, and she did not stint.

Marx is a twentieth-century composer of a different sort, known in his native Austria for songs that hew to a Romantic-era sensibility. There’s also quite a bit of “lower-case-r” romantic material in songs such as “Waldeseligkeit” (“Bliss in the woods”), which ends with “I am entirely yours.” Mattila delivered it with touching vulnerability. The final song, “Hat dich die Liebe berührt” (“If love has touched you”) was a favorite of Leontyne Price. As might be expected, it shows off a lyric dramatic soprano ideally, a great way to end this recital.

Since there wasn’t much that was peppy during the regular program, watching and listening to Mattila dance and mug her way through Lerner and Loewe’s “I could have danced all night,” her first encore, proved a welcome antidote. Her exuberance, of course, was justified by the irrepressible sentiments of the song.

Mattila herself made light of the dark nature of the evening’s material, introducing her final encore, a Finnish folk song, by noting her native culture’s melancholic nature. “It’s fast, but it’s not a happy song,” she said with a wince. “We Finns love to suffer.” The song describes a girl’s current swain with a degree of derision, which Mattila presented with a grin and a shrug.

Harvey Steiman