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Katarina Karnéus [Photo by Mats Backer courtesy of Good Company]
14 Apr 2011

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In Britain, Katarina Karnéus is closely associated with Grieg and Sibelius. Indeed, her career has almost been defined by her recordings of their songs for Hyperion.

Katarina Karnéus, Wigmore Hall

Katarina Karnéus, mezzo-soprano; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London

Above: Katarina Karnéus [Photo by Mats Backer courtesy of Good Company]


She’s given them in recital many times, but they’re so beautiful that it was a pleasure to hear her sing them again at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Obviously, live performances and recordings are completely different experiences. Recordings rarely recreate the immediacy of live performance. The Wigmore Hall is one of the finest recital halls in the world. Because it’s relatively small, it automatically creates ideal conditions for song and chamber music. The acoustic is famously warm and intimate. Indeed, the Wigmore Hall issues its own recordings, which can capture the distinctive atmosphere. Even the quietest sotto voce come over well. Sometimes this can be a disadvantage as every minor fault can be heard. But I don’t go to recitals for technical perfection, but to hear performers who care about what they are doing.

On this occasion, Karnéus wasn’t quite her usual self, especially in the first half of the programme where she sang adequately though her voice was dry and strained. Singers are human, and are their own instrument, so any trace of tiredness or ill health is amplified. Edvard Grieg’s Six Poems by Henrik Ibsen op 25 are so lovely that it didn’t matter that Karnéus wasn’t at her best. Her voice elided nicely in “En svane” which was significant, as this song has much in common, musically with Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid), op 67, which was to crown the second half of the recital.

Pianists, unlike singers, are not their own instrument. Julius Drake rose to the occasion. He played with even more grace and limpidity than usual. Every performance is different, and each has its own unique qualities. Here, Drake’s playing was so exquisite that it marked this recital as one in which you could luxuriate in the beauty of the pianism.

Sibelius’s Five Songs op 37, Drake’s playing demonstrated how important sensitive accompaniment is to song performance. The final chords of “Den första kyssen” seemed to echoing into the silence at the end of the song. An angel speaks to a maiden anticipating her first kiss, but hints that death might intervene before love. Often this detail is missed altogether, because it’s so subtle.

Karnéus was more assertive in Ture Rangström’s songs to words by Bo Bergman. She was particularly charming in Flickan under nymånen, where the young girl playfully thinks about her beau. Lilting, flirtatious rhythms, reminiscent of songs like “Killingdans” in Haugtussa. Karneus finished the song with a curtsey and a smile.

Perhaps Karnéus was shepherding her resources for Grieg’s masterpiece Haugtussa , because her voice opened out warmly. She was right to concentrate on songs like “En svane”, with similar challenges. Her voice sounded rejuvenated, soaring well on the climax “Å hildrande du”. Karnéus even looks like Veslemøy, “slight and dark and lithe, with a brown clear complexion and deep-set grey eyes”.

In Grieg, especially, the piano part is almost more crucial than voice, as it evokes mysteries that cannot be expressed in words. The vocal part is energetic and agile, but fundamentally innocent, at least in the first songs. Only when Veslemøy’s heart is broken, do her darker moods emerge. She has second sight, and is more attuned to nature spirits than to humans. Karnéus singing was clear and pure, but Drake’s playing was so exquisitely mercurial that he made the invisible presence of the spirit world feel palpable. He uses plenty of pedal, and echo. He captures the strange tonality in the music which hovers between keys and elusively changes tempo, often stopping suspended in mid-flow. It’s as if Grieg wants us to think of listening to the unheard and unseen.

For there are two parallel worlds in this cycle. One features Veslemøy’s life in the mountains and her unrequited love. The other represents the supernatural which haunts physical reality in Veslemøy’s clairvoyant imagination. Her music could almost be folk music, though it’s much more refined. The piano part, on the other hand, speaks of darker, more troubling forces. Sliding modulations, images of water in triplets that sparkle with light and life, yet also imply hidden depths and strange distortions. While Karnéus was fine, Drake was exceptional, and this performance was made me appreciate all the more the magic in Grieg’s music.

Anne Ozorio

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