, June 2011
When Katarina Karnéus made her recording debut for EMI Classics back in 1999 she chose songs by Richard Strauss, Joseph Marx and Gustav Mahler. Mahler in particular has been a regular in her recital programmes. Now that BIS have offered her the opportunity to immortalize her readings they have matched her with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, arguably the best orchestra in Scandinavia, and the young Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, who has rapidly risen to international fame. Mälkki’s bonds with the GSO are interesting: before she took up conducting she was co-principal cellist in the orchestra.
Under their former member the GSO play beautifully and with sensitivity. The superb recording catches both the marvellous acoustics of the Gothenburg Concert Hall as well as giving the most detailed orchestral picture of Mahler’s scoring. I am a lousy score reader but since I happen to own the scores for both Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückert-Lieder I could at once note that Ms Mälkki obeys Mahler’s detailed indications concerning tempos and nuances to the letter. Listening to the music again—I regularly return to these songs more often than to any other orchestral songs, bar Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder—I could savour all the felicities, from the violent outbursts in In diesem Wetter to the chamber music transparency of Um Mitternacht and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. From an orchestral point of view this disc is an unqualified success.
At first I wondered whether the voice wasn’t too recessed in relation to the orchestra. It seemed that Karnéus was in the middle of the orchestra instead of standing in front of it. Soon I adjusted to the sound-picture and it come home to me that what BIS present here is a realistic balance of the kind one encounters in the hall at a live concert. The difference is that in the hall I see the singer as well, which gives the impression that she is more forwardly balanced than she actually is. Let me say at once that Katarina Karnéus is never overpowered by the orchestra: every syllable, every nuance is fully audible—and we get all the orchestral details in the bargain.
Jaded concert-goers and record collectors naturally have their favourite readings. For me there are two singers—and I am limiting the choice to female singers—that for years have stood head and shoulders above many others who are also excellent: Dame Janet Baker’s EMI recordings with Barbirolli from the mid-to-late sixties and Brigitte Fassbaender on Decca with the Concertgebouw under Riccardo Chailly from a couple of decades later. They differ quite a lot with Dame Janet the smoother and more beautiful, Fassbaender with a rawer sound that seems to come directly from nature. Both are magically involved and I can honestly say that neither is superior to the other.
Karnéus comes somewhere between the two older singers and this is no faint praise, indicating that hers is a middle-of-the-road or all-purpose reading. She is just as individual and peers just as deeply into the songs. She can at times, notably the opening of the stormy In diesem Wetter (tr. 5) and Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (tr. 8), apply a kind of vitriolic tone—somewhat similar to Fassbaender at her most intense—that depicts despair, a situation that is beyond the character’s control. But she has a wide palette of colours, superbly utilized and in direct contrast to the vitriol she can draw on, as in Oft denk’ ich, (tr. 4). There she finds a light silvery tone that makes the line Sie machen hur den Gang zu jenen Höh’n so heart-rending. Though these songs are filled with deep feelings there should still be some kind of objectivity. Mahler writes explicitly Ohne Sentimentalität (Without sentimentality) above the last song of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and that is exactly what Katarina Karnéus delivers, and she also obeys Mit geheimnisvoll schwermütigem Ausdruck (With mysterious melancholy expression). These are only a couple of random observations on her deeply considered readings.
Where she definitely wins me over is in the Rückert-Lieder—or they—since Susanna Mälkki is just as responsible for the total success. Rarely—not even with Janet Baker or Brigitte Fassbaender—have I heard them so congenially interpreted. Again it is the interplay between the orchestra and the voice that captures me so much, especially the sublime writing for the woodwind—in Liebst du um Schönheit only four French horns added—and in Um Mitternacht no strings but full wind forces and harp and piano. I had to play the whole cycle da capo and was totally captured. Fassbaender and Baker will not be removed from my weighted down shelves but Karnéus will from now on join this illustrious company. Don’t miss this issue, dear reader.