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Exquisite bouquet, hearty body, bright Finnish

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
03/10/2016 -  
Johannes Brahms: Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103
Richard Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder
Alban Berg: Four Songs, Op. 2
Richard Strauss: Fünf kleine Lieder, Op. 69: 1. “Der Stern” – Fünf Lieder, Op. 41: 1. “Wiegenlied” – Sechs Lieder, Op. 37: 3. “Meinem Kinde” – Schlichte Weisen, Op. 21: 3. “Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden” – Sechs Lieder aus „Lotosblätter“ von Adolf Friedrich Graf von Schack, Op. 19: 4. “Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten” – Acht Gedichte aus „Letzte Blätter“ von Hermann von Gilm: 8. “Allerseelen” – Vier Lieder, Op. 27: 2. “Cäcilie”

Karita Mattila (soprano), Martin Katz (piano)

K. Mattila (© Marcia Rosengard)

“Yearning with desire
You stretch your arms out wide
And, captive to delusion, hug
Emptiness, the barren void.”
Mathilde Wesendonck, Im Treibhaus

Karita Mattila has dazzled at the Metropolitan Opera in such works as Fidelio, where she brought new meaning to the phrase “climbing the walls”, Jenůfa, Manon Lescaut and Salome, performing stark naked as a part of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” – the review in the New York Times was 18 paragraphs and her singing was not metioned until the 17th! How would she do on her own on a smaller stage? Let’s explore.

First of all the act itself. Ms. Mattila is very tall and athletic with striking blonde hair. She wore different dresses for each half of this recital and, overall, adopted a torch song approach to the evening. It would have been no surprise if she lay on top of the piano Helen Morgan style. Mr. Katz is a diminutive man, dressed in an unobtrusive tuxedo. His playing matched his sartorial choices exactly: tasteful but unprepossessing.

In Brahms’ Central Europe of the mid-19th century, Hungarian Gypsy music was the rough equivalent of pop in our own time. The Hamburg composer was very familiar with the genre, not just because of the ubiquitous role of Liszt but also since he was the preferred pianist of touring violinist Reményi. He wrote his darling Clara Schumann that he was involved in performances of Robert’s Zigeunerleben and, of course, composed his own Hungarian Dances. The Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103 were originally written for four part vocal harmony but are occasionally offered, if at all, in solo arrangement. Ms. Mattila exhibited passion in “Mountainous Rima Waters” and poignancy in “Three Little Roses In the Row”, utilizing many operatic gestures while doing justice to this now rather obscure music.

If Minna Wagner was Freia and Cosima Brünnhilde, then Mathilde Wesendonck was certainly Isolde. The music of “Im Treibhaus” (“In the Greenhouse”) became the heartwrenching opening of Act III of Tristan. I suspect that Ms.Mattila is not really a soprano at all but rather zwischenfach in her vocal range, as her low notes are very strong and resonant. This was a moving performance, although I must admit to a strong preference for the orchestral accompaniment. Katz did add some strong dissonance as appropriate, but much of the aching tonal color of the full ensemble is simply lacking. Ms. Mattila was extremely expressive, adding palpable vocal colors in highly charged spots for a sensitive reading. One could hear the ending of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in the final song “Träume”.

Unlike his Seven Early Songs, the Alban Berg songs from opus 2 were written under the tutelage of Schoenberg and follow the pattern of the teacher’s String Quartet No. 2 with only the last piece fashioned in a pantonal manner. It was a pleasure to hear these lyrical works that are somehow almost always ignored in revivals of Berg’s music.

Finally, our hostess opened her heart for a traversal of songs by Richard Strauss. “Der Stern” from Kleine Lieder (5), Op. 69 was offered dramatically and made a fine introduction to this well thought-out set. “Wiegenlied”, with words by Richard Dehmel (the Transfigured Night guy) can hover between the profound and the kitsch (remember when “The Three Tenors” sang it?) but Ms. Mattila kept it heart in the throat moving, as tender and electrifying as one of the great singers of the low register of the past (Caballé came to the mind’s ear).

After a soul-wrenching traversal of “Meinem Kinde”, “Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden” and “Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten” (“How shall we keep it secret?”), our performer felt the need to call for a break, gesturing with her hands to her heart that she was clearly drained – as were we all. Then collected, she finished strongly with “Allerseelen” and the song that traditionally ends one of these soirees, “Cäcilie” (pronounced “Cecily”). Performer and her audience were worn out by the end, and isn’t this what we all hope for?

Fred Kirshnit



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