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Barber, Kuula, Melartin, Merikanto, Madetoja, Wolf, Granados, Turina: Karita Mattila (soprano); Martin Katz (piano). Barbican Hall, London 12.06.006 (CC)

What a marvellous singer Karita Mattila is! Although I have tracked her career on record, my concert hall/opera house experience has been rather thin so it was a treat to experience Mattila's humanity and joie-de-vivre first-hand. Her biography describes her as, 'one of today's most exciting lyric dramatic sopranos'. She also appears to be one of the great musical communicators.

Samuel Barber's famous Hermit Songs, Op. 29 is a cycle based on 8th-12th century texts translated into modern English by the likes of Auden and Sean O'Faolain. Singing in English to an English audience was a brave way to begin for this Finnish soprano, but it paid off simply because her diction was little short of exemplary. The mezzo tinge to Mattila's voice meant that the songs really gained in depth of utterance, an impression aided by Martin Katz' exemplary, warm-toned accompaniments (only one minor criticism – perhaps he underplayed the running treble counterpoint in the third song, 'St Ita's Vision'). Most memorable was Mattila's seamless, hypnotic vibrato for 'The Crucifixion', although close runners-up were the well-delineated contrasts of 'The Monk and his Cat' and the eminently believable plea for solitude towards the end of the final song, 'The Desire for Hermitage'.

It is clear that Mattila is passionate about the music of her home region. The four composers here were allotted two songs each. Toivo Kuula (1883-1918), from Ostrobothnia, provided the simple, child-like 'Morning Song' (beautiful minor-mode colouring of the central stanza) and the contrasting, 'Autumn Mood', with its dark piano sonorities (like late Liszt) and impassioned climax.
The two songs by Erkki Melartin (1875-1937) were entitled, 'Miriamm's Song I & II' and made the perfect pair, the first sweetly Schubertian (without, perhaps, that composer's effortless compositional ease), the second darker, as if the first song's flip side. The Merikanto songs were similarly contrasting: the nostalgia-tinged, 'Play softly' sat next to the Richard Straussian extravagance of 'When the Sun shines' (Mattila was in full flow here. The song invited applause, and got it, leading to little speech by the singer).Mattila referred to Madetoja as 'Finland's hidden jewel' and it seemed difficult to argue. The Debussian influences were very evident (rippling piano, Spanish guitar ...). This was a mightily impressive way to end the first half.

Hugo Wolf's huge emotional palette might seem to be expressly designed for Mattila, and her selection of six Lieder from the Spanisches Liederbuch (1889-90) that opened the second half was perfectly judged. The change of costume from white to blue seemed to emphasise the shift of intensity. Mattila's sense of vocal colour is wonderful, adding a mezzo 'wash' top the sound when appropriate ('Alle gingen, Herz, zur Ruh'), acting out the confrontation in 'Saft, seid Ihr es, feiner Herr' and almost using Sprachgesang for 'Geh, Geliebter, geh jetzt' (a Lied that became a mini-drama here).

An intense La maja y el ruiseñor led to a final Poema en forma de canciones (Turina).The Turina begins with an evocative movement for piano only (Mattila sensibly stood at the very end of the piano for this) before leading us through the four highly contrasting songs that make up this work. A hugely abandoned 'Ay!', bookending the second song, found Mattila in full cry. Superb. Two encores only - a Dvorák Gypsy Song and a Finnish 'Merry Song'. If the idea was to leave 'em wanting more, then she succeeded. Perhaps it is Mattila that is Finland's jewel, not Madetoja. At least she is not hidden (although this reviewer for one would like to see more of her on these shores).

Colin Clarke



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)