I was fortunate enough to see the magnificent soprano Karita Mattila perform the title role in Janácek's "Kát'a Kabanová" at the Metropolitan Opera last December. A striking blonde and a charismatic presence onstage, she lifted me from my upper balcony seat by the sheer volume of her voice. As this best-of compilation proves, Mattila is an accomplished singer who knows how to wrap her voice around the most challenging of measures and still display a rare communicative gift to all who listen. This wide-ranging collection (recorded from 1995 to 2001) shows how she effectively uses the timbre of her voice to gauge the emotional terrain of a song. It's a testament of her interpretive artistry that you never hear her reaching for an unnecessary flourish.
Mattila's versatility within the Romantic movement is showcased to strong advantage in the Schumann and Brahms selections, where she handles the delicacy of the melodies with lovely economy. Then there are a series of pieces by master composers from her homeland, Finland - Oskar Merikanto, Erkki Melartin, Toivo Kuula and the most famous, Jean Sibelius. It helps that so many of these selections invoke the haunting, desolate beauty of Nordic landscapes, which are ideally infused by the cool radiance of her vocal tone. Especially in the Sibelius sections, you hear how Mattila captures his very powerful modal implications drawn out over a number of notes. Ilmo Ranta accompanies on piano with immaculate skill on all the Romantic and Finnish selections.
From that point, the disc goes into more familiar programming starting with a lovely version of Schubert's "Ave Maria" and an ethereal performance of Dvorak's "Song to the Moon" from "Rusalka" with a rich string accompaniment. More dramatic interpretations follow with her one-two punch of Italian arias: a rousing "Ritorna vincitor" from Verdi's "Aida" and the bitter melancholy she expresses in Puccini's "Vissi d'Arte" from "Tosca". For all intents and purposes, the disc should have ended with the high-flying dramatic runs she displays in her impressive live performance of Strauss' "Klänge der Heimat" from "Die Fledermaus". Jukka-Pekka Saraste masterfully conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on all these selections.
Alas, the last two tracks highlight Mattila's ability to crossover to Tin Pan Alley. It's arguable as to whether their inclusion is necessary - a harp-introduced rendition of "Somewhere" from Bernstein and Sondheim's "West Side Story", which she sings with thankfully elegant simplicity, and more frustratingly, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed version of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Lerner and Lowe's "My Fair Lady", where her Finnish accent betrays her only when she enunciates "dance" with the roundest of o's. Regardless, Mattila is a lyric soprano with powers of expansive generosity, a mature and warm tone in the middle register, and an upper register that effortlessly releases the excitement of an emotional climax. Even with the Broadway tunes, she displays a sophisticated gift for phrasing. Strongly recommended.