> SIBELIUS Songs Karneus [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORD OF THE MONTH

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Songs:
Illalle, op. 17/6, Den judiska flickans sång, from Belshazzarís Feast, op. 51, 6 Songs, op. 36, Jag är etz träd, op. 57/5, Necken, op. 57/8, 5 Songs, op. 37, Vem styrde hit din väg? Op. 90/6, Norden, op. 90/1, 6 Songs, op. 50, Våren flyktar hastigt, op. 13/4, Under strandens granar, op. 13/1
Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (pianoforte)
Recorded 26th-28th June 2001, location not given
HYPERION CDA67318 [65í01"]


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What is a mezzo-soprano (5)? [see What is a mezzosoprano? part (1), (2), (3), (4)]

Earlier articles/reviews in this series were dedicated to Magdalena Kozena (1), who may be a real soprano, the "mezzo-contralto" Rebecca de Pont Davies(2), Malena Ernmanís splendid disc of cabaret songs (3)and the always-welcome Anne Sophie von Otter singing Chaminade (4).

Von Otter, I concluded, is a superb example of a "typical" mezzo-soprano. I would like to temper that now by describing her as a typical "high" mezzo-soprano, with a type of voice which, while maintaining a mezzo richness throughout its range, is basically light and agile, the sort of mezzo who can excel in roles like Oktavian which are also sung by sopranos.

If you turn to Katarina Karnéusís new disc, you will hear another kind of "typical" mezzo-soprano. While I wouldnít recommend her to call herself a "mezzo-contralto" as de Pont Davies does, this is an altogether darker voice-type compared with von Otter, a typical "low" mezzo-soprano.

I reviewed Karnéusís first disc, a recital of R. Strauss, Mahler and Joseph Marx in EMIís Debut series (CDZ 5 73168 2) with some reservations, feeling there was still work to be done. I havenít gone back to refresh my memory and I hardly wish to do so since the work has evidently been done now. What we have on this Sibelius disc is a young voice in all its first fresh glory. The only hint of the doubts I had before came in a few highish notes with a rather "white" tone in a lighter piece like "Tennis at Trianon", op. 36/3. For the rest everything is wonderfully even and controlled. The basic register has, as I say, a rich, dark quality which she can extend upward to an A or even a B flat. There is nothing of von Otterís "lightness" in these high notes; true to her voice-type, Karnéusís notes above the break are dramatic, thrilling, and magnificently stable. She can also offer some smouldering descents into the chest register.

Another important aspect of Karnéusís technical armoury is her avoidance of vibrato. Voices without vibrato can have an irritating choir-boy-like quality which the Italians call "fisso" Ė fixed. They can also seem out of tune even when they are not. This word "fixed" perhaps explains it, since it suggests the voice is somehow held steady so the vocal chords do not vibrate freely. Karnéusís voice is, in fact, vibrant, not "fixed" at all, but without a trace of vibrato in the sense of "wobble". Vibrato in the wobble sense of the word can be attractive when the voice is fresh and young but it has a way of getting out of hand as time goes on (think of Bartoli); Karnéus exhibits a solidly-based, perfectly controlled instrument which should remain with her (and us, I hope) for a long time.

I have quite deliberately avoided giving specific examples since the achievement is so consistent that virtually any song would do. Similarly, I donít want to go into the interpretations more specifically than to say that she shows full commitment and embraces a range from gentle simplicity to the extremely dramatic (also this is a quality I was not sure about in the previous disc). Again, I do this because I donít want to give the idea that some things stand out as better managed than others. In fact, pushed for time as I was, there were several songs where I just had to press the repeat button; but why tell you which, perhaps your favourites will be others? Those critics who did not share my reservations about Karnéusís previous disc, let alone those who did, will surely be overwhelmed by this one which surely announces the arrival of a major artist.

Karnéusís EMI disc had a balance in favour of the voice that made Roger Vignoles appear a rather retiring partner (which I suspect was not the reality). Hyperion have provided a finely balanced recording and Julius Drake is strikingly rich in tone without ever dominating - they make a fine partnership.

And a word about Sibeliusís songs. The general idea is that he was a great composer of symphonies and orchestral tone-poems who "also wrote" a lot of smaller pieces, the implication being that it isnít very good. With a lot of the piano music this is alas the case, but his songs are highly individual and poetic creations, fully comparable with the work of contemporaries like R. Strauss, Mahler and Rachmaninov. If you donít know them this disc will be an ideal introduction. And even if you have other recordings of them, why not treat yourself and add this?

Informative notes from long-standing Scandinavian music champion Robert Layton, with French and German translations, texts in the original languages and English and a beautiful cover taken from a painting by Bruno Liljefors complete an issue for which I can find only praise.


Christopher Howell

 


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