Sun, Jun 12, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Classical DVD and CD reviews

Karita Mattila, by Helsinki Recital; Swan Lake, by Zurich Ballet; Die Walkure, by Wagner; Sonatas for Violin and Piano, by J.S. Bach

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

KARITA MATTILA, by Helsinki Recital.

All four items under review this month have their distinctive attractions, and if none of them is absolutely essential, each nevertheless has its own unique charm and allure, and will be even more attractive to enthusiasts for the fields it inhabits.

Soprano recitals can be yawn-inducing at times, but no one could possibly say that of Karita Mattila’s stunning performance in the Helsinki Opera House as shown on a recent DVD from Ondine. She’s an unusual figure in the classical world anyway — what other soprano would come on stage barefoot for the last part of her program, or take a bow virtually prostrate on the stage floor?

But such antics are not what make Mattila so distinctive. Her real claim to our attention is her passionate commitment to the music she’s performing, and this is displayed with increasing intensity throughout this concert.

She begins conventionally enough with some songs by the late 19th-century French composer Henri Duparc, but then things begin to change. She launches into a work, Quatre Instants, by young Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and is so clearly overwhelmed that at one point you wonder if she can really continue. When Saariaho comes on stage to take her own bow, the reception the audience gives her is overwhelming.

Some songs by Rachmaninov follow, also leaving Mattila visibly moved, and she ends her advertised performance with some Gypsy Songs by Dvorak (which is where the shoes come off). But the highlight of the evening is the song Golden Earrings (from 1942, we’re told), which immediately makes you want to see Mattila in a musical, so dynamic and devastating is her performance.

This is a concert to restore any flagging interest in the classical tradition. The Helsinki venue appears delightfully democratic and modern, and greatly preferable to somewhere like London’s Covent Garden with its royal trappings. As for Mattila herself, few sopranos can match her voice, and absolutely none her artistic commitment. Her marvelous pianist is Martin Katz.

Zurich Ballet’s Swan Lake has had mixed reviews but I enjoyed it immensely. It’s classical in style without being exactly traditional. Costumes and choreography are as you might expect, but there’s no scenery, only a bare but colorfully lit stage.

Heinz Spoerli gives the first and third acts a congenial conviviality, then in the lakeside acts creates a sort of choreographic geometry, without ignoring the emotions of the two main protagonists. Of these, Polina Semionova as Odette/Odile is outstanding, while Stanislav Jermakov as Count Siegfried gives her sturdy and muscular support.

Unnamed dancers from the company play the smaller roles and uniformly give pleasure in their one-off numbers. This seemed to me a fresh and successful version of a ballet that too often feels weighed down by tradition. The orchestral sound is vigorous and beautifully recorded; the conductor is Vladimir Fedoseyev.

Brand new from New York’s Metropolitan Opera come two CDs of Wagner’s Die Walkure dating from 1968. The cast is stellar — Jon Vickers as Siegmund, Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde, Birgit Nilsson as Brunnhilde, Christa Ludwig as Fricke and Thomas Stewart as Wotan.

This was one of the matinees broadcast live throughout the US by the Met, and there are other operas from the archive being issued alongside this one. With such a cast you can only wonder why these tapes have lain unreleased for so long, but the answer is plain — the sound quality leaves something to be desired.

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