Lynn René Bayley
, January 2011
In the long history of recording, there have always been voices (primarily sopranos, but also some tenors) that simply didn’t record well. Sometimes, this was due to the power factor, that the voice was simply too large to be properly recorded by the technology of the time—this was the case with Ponselle, Rethberg, and Crespin, whose voices sounded lovely but gave little indication of the exceptional power and depth of sound they produced in person—but sometimes it was just an odd quality in the voice that made them non-phonogenic. This was most certainly the case with Karl Burrian, who penned the famous quote, “My voice was not of glassy stone, though that’s what the gramophone captured,” but the microphone also played the voices of Eva Turner, Leonie Rysanek, Richard Tucker, and Cristina Deutekom false, and the latter three had the advantage of stereo sound, to no avail. Karita Mattila has the greater advantage of digital technology, yet very few of her recorded performances really sound the way she does in person.
The problem is not so much microphone quality as microphone placement. Even as far back as the 1930s, André Kostelanetz discovered the best way to record Ponselle’s voice was to move the microphone slightly above and two rows behind the conductor’s head, a spatial luxury she was never afforded in the Victor recording studios. Mattila, too, needs to have the microphones placed just so in order to achieve the best reproduction of her voice. Her best recordings are the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, the live performance of Don Carlos with Roberto Alagna and Thomas Hampson, and to a lesser extent the Georg Solti concert recording of Die Meistersinger. Most of her other recordings are practically unlistenable as a fluttery wobble beyond endurance creeps in and overwhelms the listener.
This DVD-CD combination serves as a contrast between so-so miking and good microphone placement. The DVD, recorded at sold-out concerts at the Finnish National Opera in October 2006 with the excellent Martin Katz on piano, is somewhat fluttery, much like the Solti Meistersinger, while the audio CD, taken from three separate concerts in Turku and Järvenpää in the 1990s, is rather better. Both are finer than the majority of her commercial CDs, however, which is all to the good. As usual, I feel deep pangs of regret that such a great artist is not only under-appreciated by a larger public but consciously separated from them by means of high-priced, upper-class access to her concerts. The opening shots in the DVD, of champagne being poured into glasses and a wealthy, all-white audience milling around in gold and marble splendor prior to the concert, say it all. If you don’t have the money it takes to be a part of this audience, we’re just as glad you didn’t show up to partake of this illustrious, highbrow entertainment. Nor does Mattila, wearing enough diamonds to emulate Ivana Trump, welcome one into a comfort zone.
Yet her singing goes straight to the heart, and one doesn’t have to be To the Class Born to appreciate the excellence of her interpretations. She is a master communicator, one of those very rare operatic songbirds who really care about interpretation and communication. One salient feature of the DVD is that the sound, though somewhat imperfect in terms of reproducing her voice, brings out better than many others its power and that delicious combination of silk and dark metal in her voice. I personally didn’t feel that she controls the soft passages well enough in L’Invitation au voyage or Phidylé to bring out their most haunting quality (Janet Baker is my gold standard in these)—the same is true of Rachmaninoff’s O Do Not Sing to Me, Fair Maiden—but at least she tries and she comes close. By contrast, every single moment of Kaija Saariaho’s brief song cycle Quatre Instants is stunningly perfect for Mattila, probably because it was written specifically for her (this is its premiere recording). The harmonic language is bitonal yet still lyrical, sort of a Finnish twist on Poulenc. I was very happy that the lyrics were included in the DVD’s booklet, since there are no accessible subtitles on the disc. Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs are right up Mattila’s alley, music that sounds as tailor-made for her as Saariaho’s song cycle, and in them you can visibly see her (metaphorically) letting her hair down and really getting into them. And here’s something else: By the time she finishes her encores, Golden Earrings and Minun kultani kaunis on (My Gal Is So Pretty), she’s barefoot, down on the floor, and enjoying every minute of it. An interesting visual journey, that, from bejeweled splendor to just getting down and being herself.
Martin Katz’s accompaniment is nothing short of breathtaking: well phrased, emotionally intense, technically flawless, and smoldering with an undercurrent of intensity. He draws no attention to himself by his actions at the keyboard, but the sounds he produces burn themselves on the mind.
As for the CD, Mattila’s silver sword of a voice rings out beautifully in the Beethoven and Brahms songs, and the music of Sibelius and Kuula are mother’s milk to her, but I am uncomfortable with her interpretations of Schubert. None of the songs seem either fast enough in tempo or sharply articulated in rhythm for me; Die Forelle and Heidenröslein, in particular, sound somewhat lumpy and leaden. I doubt if it’s because she can’t sing them fast enough, but rather that this is her interpretive choice, but it’s not mine and I don’t feel it serves the music particularly well. Possibly the lumpiness is also due to accompanist Ilmo Ranta, a good pianist but not in the same league as Katz.
In toto, then, a good choice for Mattila fans, as well as a possible shocker for those who only know her from her more defective commercial recordings. I should also point out that the Helsinki recital is also available as an audio-only CD on Ondine 1100-5.