A Truly Memorable Evening with Karita Mattila

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Poulenc, Debussy, Duparc, Sallinen and Marx:, Karita Mattila (soprano), Ville Matvejeff (piano):Wigmore Hall, London 4.4.2013. (JPr)

Poulenc:  Banalités
Debussy:  (From Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire)
Harmonie du soir
Le jet d’eau
Duparc: Chanson triste
Au pays où se fait la guerre
Sallinen: Neljä laulua unesta (Four Dream Songs)
Marx: Nocturne
Selige Nacht
Valse de Chopin
Hat dich die Liebe berührt

Karita Mattila’s wide-eyed initial reaction to the welcome from her Wigmore Hall audience was of the typical ‘Are you all here for me?’ type. Afterwards never once did I get the impression of a ‘Diva’ – in the modern use of the word – from her, because it suggests haughtiness and scene-stealing. By the end of the concert it was clear how much she appreciated singing to us and the evident pleasure and enjoyment it gave her to be able to do so. As an opera singer Ms Mattila has been described as an ‘alluring stage animal’ who ‘holds nothing back’. Her Salome is infamous both at the Met and on the concert platform, most recently at the Royal Festival Hall (review). Although there are plans for her to appear next season (Wozzeck and Ariadne auf Naxos) she has been an infrequent visitor to Covent Garden recently and this may have explained the number of empty seats at this gala recital. She put aside her usual repertoire of suffering operatic heroines for a recital, with fellow-Finn, pianist Ville Matvejeff, featuring songs by Poulenc, Debussy, Duparc, Aulis Sallinen and Joseph Marx. The themes are despair, regret, love and death; the whole gamut of human emotions that Karita Mattila excels at portraying in opera.

Ms Mattila never held back as she hurled herself into these songs from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries by composers from Germany, France and her native Finland. With the help of her absolutely wonderful young pianist, it gradually became an evening to remember. Mr Matvejeff was an important part of the concert, playing with a profound musicality throughout and a varied palette of expression. As the evening went on each song became an engrossing vignette, a few minutes of ‘performance art’ when Ms Mattila showed us a distinctive character, often with a different psychological motivation from the one she had just presented. I have often argued that this is the best way to approach a recital, though it is not to everyone’s taste as I have been told that the words and accompanying music should tell us everything we need to know – without the singer expressing their feelings in any way. If that is your preference then Karita Mattila would not be for you because throughout she emotes with a totally intense theatricality, familiar from opera.

However, she was not at ease during the opening Banalités of Poulenc and seemed to be trying too hard. Because of some histrionics I began to imagine she would make a great Norma Desmond in Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Ms Mattila’s French diction was not at its best, her ‘cig-ar-ret-te’ during Hotêl seemed over-elaborate and she failed to make a connection with me in these occasionally tenderly sad wartime songs, to poems by Guillaume Apollinaire. Her voice also took some time to find its true focus; there were generous amounts of scooping up to a note, though it was best from the start in quieter passages when she created a greater sense of intimacy more appropriate to the Wigmore Hall. Highlights of an underwhelming first half to her recital were two Debussy songs; the romantic intoxication of Le jet d’eau and the quietly reflective, Recueillement, and Duparc’s ardent Au pays où se fait la guerre. These and the rapturous Phidylé were the most involving songs before the interval

Having been glamorously attired in something cerise in the first half, she came out in more severe black for full-on renditions of ‘Four Dream Songs’ by Aulis Sallinen. With its throbbing piano accompaniment, the ‘Cradle song for a dead horseman’ especially showcased the composer’s distinctive sense of drama, pace and power. Set to poems by Paavo Haavikko, the enigmatic, yet operatic, cycle also includes ‘Man made from sleep’, about a woman who dreams of a dead lover, and Karita Mattila imbued it with heartfelt pathos.

Her final set of Joseph Marx songs, each given a lavishly rich piano accompaniment, were just simply pure Viennese Schmaltz with the world of operetta never too far away! In the Valse de Chopin Ms Mattila seemed egged on by Mr Matvejeff’s piano to sing with increasing intensity, higher and higher like the Phantom of the Opera makes Christine do in the eponymous musical. The evening concluded with a potently alluring account of Hat dich die Liebe berührt.

Karita Mattila spoke of how the ‘Precious, precious, Wigmore Hall takes your heart away’ and by way of thanks, her first encore was Strauss’s Zueignung and she was nearly overcome by its repeated ‘Habe Dank’. She then offered us ‘A different kind of Finnish song than you heard in the programme … a tango … the Finnish people love to dance the tango.’ Unto Mononen’s number was a suitably upbeat ending to what became a truly memorable evening.. She obviously wants to come back soon even if her voice is – to be truthful – a size too big for the hall. I would come back to see her and I hope she sells-out next time – she deserves no less.

Jim Pritchard

For details of concerts at the Wigmore Hall go to http://www.wigmore-hall.org.uk/.