Sunday, January 30, 2011

Northernness: Karita Mattila and the NYPhil with Beethoven, Sibelius, and Nielsen

Karita Mattila with Sibelius art songs and a Beethoven concert aria, plus Ludwig's Eighth and a twentieth-century Scandinavian symphony sounded pretty irresistible to me.  So I was surprised (though certainly grateful) to find the NY Phil 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.


  1. My, what sharp eyes you have? Cobalt/Charcoal? Ivory shawl? Looked black and white to me but my vision isn't all it should be*. And, how, pray tell, would a young person like yourself have come in contact with so ancient an artifact as a cassette tape?

    In any case I think you're generally right about the 8th. Not an epic symphony perhaps but one susceptible to a more vigorous interpretation (such as one I heard a couple months ago with Thielemann and the VPO).

    Mattila** did have a couple of tight moments in the "Ah Perfido" but generally was superb. Still, Abscheulischer is a much more challenging and I think in context a much more compelling piece.***

    I too was unfamiliar with the Nielsen and liked it a lot. The much advertised lushness that you refer to was most edifying and the Phil sounded terrific - the strings as good as I've ever heard them.

    Finally, get thee to the Boccanegra please. Its really is a can't miss.

    *Did you go on the 29th and where exactly did you sit? We were also in the first tier boxes on the left side of the podium facing the stage.

    **If you haven't had a chance to hear her as Leonore make sure to get the Met DVD. She was also, speaking of that Boccanegra, a superb Amelia.

    ***Its obscenely hard and I've seen a couple of instances where the soprano, having a hard time but obviously giving it her all received intensely tepid applause. At a performance a couple of days later she managed to hit the notes better - although her tone was actually somewhat harder but was much better received. I don't really know what the solution is but this shows how difficult this business can be.
    In general Fidelio is revived far too infrequently at the Met. Fortunately I'll be seeing it in a couple of weeks.

  2. Well, it may have been a trick of the light, but I'm pretty sure I was seeing blue sheen and a not-quite-white shawl. I did go on the 29th, and was actually in the box closest to the stage, also on the left side of the podium. I actually had cassettes for most of my childhood. :) It was quite an Event when my father acquired a CD player.

    I did notice a few "dips" in the "Ah, perfido" but I didn't feel the impact of the piece was seriously marred. Agree with you wholeheartedly about the "Abscheulicher!" I was just surprised/pleased that this stood up to formal/dramatic comparison at all. I have seen the Met DVD of Fidelio, and absolutely adore the opera... where are you seeing it?

    I've been planning/trying to get to the Boccanegra more or less since it opened... a few unforeseen events, plus trying to coordinate with the Beloved Flatmate, have postponed it. Glad to hear your v. positive assessment.

  3. I hope the dress color comment didn't come of as snide. I was merely trying to convey my perception, not to suggest its correctness and to have a little fun at my own expense. In any case we sat in the 3rd box and I might think that maybe the specifics of the color would have been harder to see from there but apparently not: we didn't discuss it at the time but I followed up with my significant other and she tells me that your assessment of the color scheme was entirely accurate and visible even from my seat so my bad all around.

    I'll be seeing Fidelio in Zurich where I'll be for several weeks (unfortunately that means I'll have to miss the Iphigenie and Armida-fine on that last). The cast is not spectacular but the Leonore should be the most interesting of the singers, obviously important here, and while I'm concerned it'll be interesting to see what Gatti does after his various adventures and misadventures in Munich.

    Incidentally, there are DVDs of the last two Zurich productions, the old one with Jonas and Camilla Nylund but the somewhat challenging Harnoncourt and the current one. I have actually seen the latter but would say that it has to be approached with considerable caution. The DVD is of the premiere/second evening and the original reviews were of same and generally lukewarm at best. The reviews of the DVD are quite similar. I saw performances later in the run which in many respects were quite superior to what one might have expected from the reviews. I haven't seen the DVD yet but my suspicion is that it might be quite unfair to some of the parties involved.

    I trust you and Beloved Flatmate will make it to Boccanegra. Some are less than enthusiastic about the opera but I love it and the performance is really just about as superb as one might realistically expect.

  4. I have the DVD of the Zurich "Fidelio" with Kaufmann and Nylund. I think it probably should have been recorded another night (not all of the singers seemed entirely comfortable), but it's still a really good performance. Kaufmann's Florestan steals the show. Seriously, he's one of the few I've seen who actually looks like he's half-dead from hunger.

    You know, after the rage of "Abscheulicher!" and the way she rescues Florestan, it almost makes me sad that Leonore doesn't actually shoot Pizarro. As a writer, I can only imagine that it must have been very, very hard for her to restrain herself. But I'm nattering on, sorry.

    Mattila always manages to break my heart. I hope there's a recording of her singing "Ah,perfido!" somewhere.

  5. @Marcillac: no, not at all; I feared that an odd angle or my own incipient academic squint might have given me a false impression.

    I will bear your caveats in mind when and as I get a chance to look up the Zurich DVDs. I'd be interested to hear what you make of this season's Fidelio. I hope you won't be leaving until the weather makes travel safer and more pleasant!

    The B.F. and I actually have secured tickets for tonight's Simon, so a report will be forthcoming.

    @Christie: I've been impressed by excerpts of the 2004 Zurich Fidelio but have yet to see it in its entirety. From what I've seen, I really enjoy Polgar, and am somehow unsurprised by your assessment of Kaufmann's Florestan. The emotional intensity he can bring to the stage borders on the frightening (not that I'm complaining.)

    I hadn't really considered that particular temptation for Leonore before... I am, however, fascinated by the huge range of interpretive choices out there for Leonore's emotional reaction between quartet and "O Namenlose Freude!"

    Haven't found a recording of Mattila with "Ah, perfido!" yet, but there was equipment in the hall which makes me suspect it may be eventually released, at least through the NYPhil's iTunes. Your emotional response to Mattila is interesting; I found her Tosca uneven, but was fortunate to see her in Onegin as well, and her Tatiana was heartbreaking indeed.

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  9. As it happens Lucy, I saw two Fidelios over the last couple of weeks which left vastly different impressions. More later.

  10. Lucy,

    little time just now to comment on performances but I just found out that one of the ones I went to is available on radio for a couple more days at the following link.

    Opera Cake has a review with which I generally concur. I hope to get a chance to listen myself but doubt I'll be able to do so before Saturday if then.

    In any case if you have time you can give it a listen if you want.


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