The Finnish soprano Karita Mattila has been a favourite in this country ever since she was crowned the first Cardiff Singer of the World back in the 1980s.
Highlights of her career in the UK have included playing Elisabeth de Valois in Verdi’s Don Carlos, the title role in Strauss’ Arabella and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, each of them a memorable and very personal take on three of operas greatest roles.
She returned to the Barbican in a recital encompassing German Lieder, an American song cycle, songs from her homeland, and two items by Spanish composers.
Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs are based on 10th century poems written by monks and hermits, translated into modern English. Some of them are quite extensive, like ‘Saint Ita’s Vision’ and ‘At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory’, which Mattila sang with great flow and pointed the words with decision. Others were only a couple of lines long in text, such as ‘Church Bell at Night’, and although both Mattila and her accompanist Martin Katz performed each one with equal conviction, there is a slight homogeneity about the cycle of songs which left me emotionally cold.
Nevertheless, there were some lovely moments. In ‘The Heavenly Banquet’, Mattila moved nimbly around the notes with a precise staccato, emphatic one moment, soft the next. ‘The Crucifixion’ was the most moving of the lot, thanks to a heartfelt climax on the works ‘Ah, sore was the suffering borne by the body of Mary’s Son’. Katz brought atmosphere to ‘Sea-Snatch’, the waves crashing around the piano in big chunky chords, and ‘The Monk and his Cat’ was charming and full of character, Mattila acting out the story with confidence and insight, as she would for every item on the programme. And there was a prayer-like stance and religious quality of tone in ‘The Desire for Hermitage’, which ended the group.
Next came eight Finnish songs, a repertoire that Mattila has championed. They are all lovely romantic miniatures, in no way inferior to German Lieder of the same period, and in Mattila’s hands they were a delight to hear, if unchallenging. Toivo Kuula’s ‘Morning Song’ was done with lovely long phrases and Mattila’s sumptuous tone, and special emphasis was brought to the poignant line ‘Tiny flower so expectantly waiting,/It’s time you were hiding below’ in ‘Autumn Mood. Erkki Melartin’s two ‘Miriam Songs’ were performed with well-considered contrasts of mood and technique. An autumnal air was given to Oskar Marikanto’s ‘Play Softly, Thou Tune of my Mourning’, the vocal line rising to an exciting high in the second stanza. More optimistic was ‘When the sun shines’, a sudden outburst of energy and thrilling tone causing the audience to break the silence and applaud. Mattila encouraged this, expressing her enthusiasm for the Finnish repertoire and acknowledging her tendency to melancholy songs! Leevi Madetoja’s two songs to end the group were particularly exquisite, with ‘You Thought I was Watching You’ performed with a shine in the voice, and very fine breath control in ‘Take My Hand’.
Six Lieder from Hugo Wolf’s Spanish Songbook opened the second half. I found the voice perhaps a little strained on the top, and ‘Ring out, ring out, my timbrel’ seemed rather bitty. Mattila was back on form for the cheeky ‘In the shadow of my tresses’, causing a laugh on the line, ‘Shall I wake him? Oh no!’, and her sense of fun continued in the virtuosic ‘Say, was it you, dear sir’. Finely controlled phrasing characterised ‘Cover me with flowers’, continuing in ‘Go beloved, go now’, which had a floating quality that is particular to this singer.
Granados’ ‘La maja y el ruiseor’ was almost as sexy and seductive as Mattila herself (who looked stunning in her two outfits) but again, there was a slight strain on the top of the voice. Turina’s Poema en forma de canciones was something of a revelation to me, however: the high point of the evening, it almost transported us to Spain and was a fitting conclusion to the programme. The touching ‘Do not forget’ was securely phrased and Mattila sang some impressive half-tones, bringing a focus to the music. ‘Songs’ was sad but again emphatic, with suggestive hints of Spanish folk music in the dazzling cadenza. A cooler and more seductive mood came in ‘The two fears’, and ‘Frantic for love’ was a witty and jolly ending.
Two encores were sung: a melancholy gypsy piece by Dvorak and a comic song from Finland, both of them totally captivating in the soprano’s use of her voice and the attention to word setting.
Mattila ended by explaining that it was such a warm evening that she needed to talk her shoes off, and she sang both encores like this. She also encouraged everyone to leave after the encores for the same reason of heat, but turned round before exiting the stage and played an F on the piano to help her sing the final line of ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story unaccompanied: ‘Goodnight, goodnight,/Sleep well and when you dream, dream of me,/ Tonight!’.
I certainly will.