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Karita Mattila Soars on Straussian Wings

Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts (Verizon Hall)
01/14/2010 -  & January 15, 16, 2009
Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6

Karita Mattila (soprano)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Juanjo Mena (conductor)

K. Mattila (© Lauri Eriksson/Warner Classics International)

The program could hardly have been weightier – a movement of a Mahler symphony, one of Beethoven’s most celebrated symphonies and Richard Strauss’ autumnal Four Last Songs. Spanish maestro Juanjo Mena took a rather light-weight approach to this heavy-weight program. That was apparent from the opening of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Mena drew a refined tone from the Philadelphia Orchestra and summoned nuanced playing from his musicians. But, as the performance proceeded, the deep emotions and poignant intensity of Mahler’s music failed to surface. Mena led a well manicured performance that unfolded spaciously but superficially – the orchestra sounded rather thin-toned throughout much of the long evening. Mena was making his Verizon Hall debut with the orchestra as a replacement for Jirí Bĕlohlávek. Like many guest conductors, he seemed seduced by the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Reveling in the orchestra’s legendary sonorities, he too often allowed Mahler’s music to spread and sprawl. The final moments sounded beautiful but inert.

Strauss’ Four Last Songs – incredibly – marked the Philadelphia debut of Karita Mattila. The veteran soprano was greeted warmly by the audience when she appeared on stage in a glamorous black gown. At the end, she received a prolonged and enthusiastic ovation. Mattila deserved the applause. She knows how to shape the long Straussian melodic lines, and her voice soared through the ecstatic climaxes. For all her vocal and interpretive polish, Mattila lacks the full, generous sound and the expressive colors ideal for this music. Her lean, cleanly focused soprano failed to find the emotional depth of Strauss’ music.

The first half of the program contrasted the final works of two great composers. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony somehow seemed out of place. Bĕlohlávek intended to round out his concert program with Bohuslav Martinù’s Symphony No. 3. Mena’s Beethoven, like his Mahler, sounded rather insubstantial. It also sounded rather slow. To his credit, the Spanish conductor bravely filled in for his ailing colleague. To his debit, he failed to add much dramatic intensity or musical weight to the concert.

Robert Baxter



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