Berg – Seven Early Songs
Brahms – Vergebliches Ständchen, op.84 no.8
Der Gang zum Liebchen, op.48 no.1
Meine Liebe ist grün, op.63 no.5
Von ewiger Liebe, op.43 no.1
Sibelius – Illalle, op.17 no.6
Demanten på marssnön, op.36 no.6
Våren flyktar hastigt, op.13 no.4
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote, op.37 no.5
Strauss – Der Stern, op.69 no.1
Wiegenlied, op.41 no.1
Allerseelen, op.10 no.8
Frühlingsfeier, op.56 no.5
Karita Mattila (soprano)
Martin Katz (piano)
The Wigmore Hall opened its 110th anniversary season in style with a recital from Karita Mattila and Martin Katz. A group of Anniversary Patrons has followed up support for Haydn Bicentenary celebrations in 2008-9 and last season’s Strauss Lieder series with funding for a number of concerts featuring artists returning to the hall after some time: a most welcome initiative, both in theory and now in practice.
Mattila, we were informed, was suffering from a cold but remained determined to sing. There were a few signs of her ailment during the opening couple of songs, but it can often take a little while for a musician to settle down in any case. Katz, moreover, made up for any initial (relative) shortcomings, ensuring that mists floated as they should in Nacht, the first of Berg’s Seven Early Songs, and revelling in that song’s extraordinary Debussyan whole-tone harmony. By the time we had reached the third, Die Nachtigall, Mattila sounded firmly in her stride. A mobile telephone intervention – and this from a relatively well-behaved audience – failed to prevent her from bringing fulsome tone to her climaxes, the piano too as full-bodied as a good claret. Liebesode was for me an especial highlight, the luxurious refulgence of Mattila’s tone compensating handsomely for occasional intonational slips, and Katz’s part properly orchestral without losing the specific post-Brahmsian quality of Berg’s piano writing. The final line of Sommertage, speaking of image upon image filling the heart, proved an apt summation of what had gone before.
The two Brahms folksongs were full of life, Vergebliches Ständchen vividly and cheekily characterised by Mattila, whilst keyboard sadness, subtly enhanced by judicious rubato, marked the Bohemian Der Gang zum Liebchen. I find it difficult to enthuse about the Felix Schumann setting, Meine Liebe ist grün, but doubtless the composer’s godson would have been delighted by it; Katz certainly seemed to relish Brahms in torrential piano-writing mode. Thereafter, both musicians revelled in the echt-Romanticism of the ballad, Von ewiger Lieber, in a reading that highlighted both the debt to Schubert and the grander, late Romantic means with which Brahms repaid his predecessor.
Mattila has an obvious native advantage when it comes to a Sibelius group, but that should not necessarily be taken for granted. She ensured, however, from the outset that a different compositional voice was to be heard, Illalle notably paying homage to Grieg. Its advertised successor, Vänskapens blomma, appeared to be replaced by another song; unfortunately, I am not well-informed enough about Sibelius or Scandinavian languages to be able to say any more. Våren flyktar hastigt brought with it a definite sense of the (European) East as well as the North. Mattila’s communicative skills brought understanding even to those of us for whom the languages themselves remain remote. There were more purely musical pleasures too, not least the grand climax she reached in the closing tale of lovers’ trysting, Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote. Sibelius is not a composer to whom I have ever readily responded, but I enjoyed the rare opportunity to hear some of his songs in recital.
Strauss is for me another matter entirely. Mattila and Katz were in their element here too. The Achim von Arnim setting, Der Stern, was perhaps a little too glamorous in performance for its straightforward means, but the ensuing Wiegenlied sounded just as it should: a very superior cradle song, nicely scaled down, but without limiting its horizons. Katz imparted proper dignity to the introduction to Allerseelen, continued and intensified by Mattila upon her entry. Finally, that extraordinary Dionysian Heine setting, Frühlingsfeier, whilst taxing the pianist to his limits, provided a veritable operatic scena with which to depart. Mattila’s cries of ‘Adonis! Adonis!’ at the conclusion to each of the three stanzas were truly blood-curdling, the overall conception Wagnerian in miniature. I said ‘finally’, but, despite her indisposition, Mattila returned on stage and announced that, unwise though this would be, reaching her fiftieth birthday had encouraged her to throw wisdom to the wind, so she would sing an encore after all. An evidently heartfelt Zueignung proved just the ticket.
A post-script: I am not convinced that ‘collaborator,’ Katz’s preferred alternative to ‘accompanist’, will catch on. The programme note entry, ‘One of the world’s busiest collaborators, Martin Katz…,’ and Katz’s book title, The Complete Collaborator, read somewhat unfortunately.