flogging student rush tickets for the event on its website. It was as I was shuffling my way across the slick surface of Lincoln Plaza, my hood up to protect from falling flakes, that I realized the probable reason why: there are mountains of snow everywhere. For those who braved the weather, Mattila gave an incandescent performance. I was less thrilled with the symphonic offerings, but they may have suffered by contrast. [Update: the concert will be available for listening on the NYPhil website from Feb. 11-25.]
Had I not been on my best behavior in a first tier box (thanks to that student ticket,) I might have indulged in a little bouncing in my seat in anticipation of Beethoven 8. The first cassette tape I remember owning was of Beethoven's seventh and eighth symphonies, and I have loved them loyally ever since. (I think it was this Solti recording; I know the tape was grey.) Under Alan Gilbert's direction, the orchestra gave a performance which was undoubtedly elegant, even good-humored. There was sweet round tone from the brasses, lovely work from the woodwinds, and the timpanist was a joy. Balance was nicely maintained, and the structure nicely delineated. But it lacked fire; and in my opinion, if there's one thing a Beethoven performance shouldn't lack, it's inner fire.
Karita Mattila, singing the composer's "Ah, perfido!" solved this problem. When she entered the stage, my jaw--embarrassing as it may be to relate--actually dropped. Maybe you already knew this, Gentle Readers, but Ms. Mattila is strikingly gorgeous. The Committee Against Dubious Wardrobe Choices can rejoice: she knows how to wear a dress, in this case a shockingly pink, correctly clinging, not-quite-shockingly low strapless satin affair, with diamond collar, bangle, and earrings. And she's tall! Statuesque, my Respected Father would say, and he would be right. And she sang, too--with fine Italian diction, expressive phrasing, and inner fire throwing sparks. The program notes (which include the text) likened its musical and dramatic structure to the later "Abscheulicher!" from Fidelio. And the resemblance is there: a strong woman traversing a wild emotional journey in strong music. However, where Leonore's aria is full of righteous wrath, "Ah, perfido!" is full of painful breakup wrath. Mattila did it brilliantly, vividly, neither trivializing the sentiments or trying to make them more nobly detached than they were.
After the interval, Mattila returned for three songs of Sibelius. This time, the dress was a cool, dark color hovering somewhere between cobalt and charcoal, sleeveless, with a perfect décolletage (she has gorgeous shoulders, and wore an ivory shawl. If she gave a tutorial in the Artful Draping of Shawls, I would take it.) I always feel vaguely disadvantaged by not knowing the language a piece is given in, but I feel that perhaps Sibelius' style of song composition may be less adversely affected by this than others'? Do feel free to correct and contradict this supposition, Gentle Readers. Mattila shaped the mood of each song skillfully, distinguishing them from each other in tone, but also giving them plenty of internal variation. The first, “Höstkväll” (Autumn Evening,) was a brilliantly Romantic evocation of melancholy and Sehnsucht, cleverly disguised as the description of an evening landscape and an oncoming storm. "Arioso" reminded me of some of Rilke's early poetry in its empathetic exploration of a young woman contemplating both her own youthful sensuality and its inevitable transience. “Våren flyktar hastigt” was bittersweet, but set in springtime; and the music and Mattila's performance seemed to say that it is hard to be too serious in April... and you need not fear December. The audience's warm applause was warmly acknowledged, with Mattila taking pains to have Gilbert and the orchestra share in the applause we called her back for.
The final piece on the program, Carl Nielsen's second symphony ("The Four Temperaments") was unfamiliar to me. Based on this showing, I'd be glad to know more of piece and composer. Gilbert and the orchestra entered with gusto into the evocation of the moods associated with each movement. The allegro collerico came off tearing at the bit; the phlegmatic second movement had all the lazy charm of a summer afternoon. The third, melancholy movement was lushly, even indulgently romantic, a temperament with which the liveliness of the fourth movement had no patience. Gilbert's conducting ensured that the music did not lapse into caricature, but I didn't feel that subtlety was one of its virtues. Maybe it wasn't intended to be. Still, Mattila received no competition for providing the artistic highlight of the evening.