Mattila's emotional high notes

Times Staff Writer

What makes Karita Mattila's singing distinctive is not merely the voice, which is strong, pure and altogether radiant. Nor is it her intelligence, which comes out clearly in her projection of the musical line and in sensitively articulated words through her entire performance.

It is, instead, the emotional intensity that pours forth in the Finnish soprano's every utterance.

That intensity marked all aspects of Mattila's performance on the Celebrity Recital series in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday night.

The statuesque singer had the abundant, expert support in this many-faceted recital of pianist Martin Katz. Together, the two made a musical team solid in its unity and rich in resonances. One cannot consider them as individuals; they are a musical unit.

Their tightly constructed program was challenging and wide ranging; it surveyed songs in French, Finnish, Russian and Czech before offering encores in English and Finnish. It elicited feelings of joy, sadness, depression, regret and hope -- just as any fully realized song recital should do. And it left the listener delighted and optimistic.

Acclaimed as a singing actress, Mattila on Sunday performed a series of compelling dramatic vignettes in a selection of great songs by Duparc, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff and Dvorak. Each group offered variety and an emotional high point. Cannily, the soprano -- handsomely dressed in orange and black gowns in the two halves of the recital -- paced herself, and her audience toward the most intense moments. The climax came in the closing Rachmaninoff song, "Kakoye schast'ye" (What Happiness), the howling ravings of a woman madly in love. Mattila/Katz gave it a shattering, triumphant performance.

Dvorak's "Gypsy Songs" at the end lightened the mood, if not the intensity, both singer and pianist responding enthusiastically to the rhythmic pull of the music. Particularly seductive was their performance of "Songs My Mother Taught Me."

Complete with a scarf used as a babushka, Mattila sang "Golden Earrings" in English as her first encore -- performing a second chorus in Finnish and announcing from the stage that it was "for Esa-Pekka Salonen," who was in the audience. Her second encore was a Finnish folk song.

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