My first encounter with the Finnish partnership of Helena Juntunen and her accompanist Eveliina Kytömäki was as participants in the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Back then, I noted how accomplished Helena Juntunen was as a recitalist, whilst Eveliina Kytömäki was an idiomatic and sympathetic pianist who brought out the feeling in all she played. Since then both artists have had flourishing international careers with Juntunen in particular being a frequent visitor to London, which no doubt contributed to my surprise that this concert was their Wigmore Hall debut.

Helena Juntunen © Heikki Tuuli
Helena Juntunen
© Heikki Tuuli

For this concert they presented a varied selection of repertoire. Each composer’s works were delivered with individuality and flair, and Juntunen especially lacked nothing in her willingness to throw herself into the performance. Of the Schumann songs “Bid me not speak” was urgently delivered, as it should be, whilst allowing flashes of a floated top register expertly shaded down to be balanced alongside a solidly distinctive lower chest voice. The sense of a singer absent-mindedly observing and conveying a scene in “Heartbreak” was established with fragility of tone and underlined by Kytömäki’s achingly sympathetic accompaniment. The mood effortlessly changed to one of impetuous longing with “Spring is here”, giving opportunity for a sense of wonder to spread across Juntunen’s face and bring much-needed brightness to her interpretation of Mörike’s text. “From Hebrew melodies” and “Sing not in mournful tones” were given wide-ranging dramatic responses that were full of passion. Juntunen’s shimmering stream of glistening tone further underlined the point that she is a singer to watch in terms of her facial expressions, and not just one who vocally commands her audience’s attention.

The selection of six Richard Strauss songs that followed continued to demonstrate Juntunen’s strength in German-language repertoire. “Ah, my love, I must leave you now” found both performers conveying a unified view of desolation, which contrasted with the impetuousness inherent in “A shelter from the rain and the storm”. The difficulty for any singer in bringing out the character of someone much older than themselves as the narrator of a song was a major issue facing Juntunen in “My heart is silent”. This was a challenge met in more than convincing terms, though, with the thaw in vocal tone from icy coldness at the start to a quickly overriding warmth and glow demonstrating just what a winning interpreter Juntunen is when in full flow.

All the more pity, then, that it was at this moment that an exclamation from an audience member caused Juntunen to lose concentration and the artists ended the song slightly prematurely. For the record, there were also some interruptions during the Schumann group but those performances continued to their conclusions. The decision was rightly taken to break for the interval early and complete the Strauss songs afterwards. “Dreadful weather” found the duo caught in a Straussian storm, and not for the first time Kytömäki perfectly caught the mood of the piano postlude. “Hollyhocks”, one of Strauss’ most personal songs, written for soprano Maria Jeritza, was poised and elegantly perfumed. “Cecily” lacked nothing in ardour and heartwarming feeling; at times this led to slight insecurity of vocal tone, but this only added to the credibility of delivery by Juntunen.

Thomas Adès’ Life Story, written in 1994, is a narrative that uses a Tennessee Williams text which explores the desperation of post-coital conversation between virtual strangers in hotel rooms the world over. Helena Juntunen set the scene adroitly: her turning of the score’s pages was so nonchalant that she might have been flicking absently through some glossy gossip magazine. Assuming a mid-American accent, the story unfolded to take its weary course before the peril of falling asleep with a lit cigarette ends the work abruptly. Kytömäki caught the bluesy tone in the accompaniment perfectly, not overstating the mixture of trenchant passages and sardonic humour it contains.

A group of five songs by Sibelius concluded the evening in rousing fashion. Of these, the sense of foreboding in the accompaniment of “The first kiss” squarely matched the immediacy of Juntunen’s use of the text. “The girl came from her lover’s tryst” spanned the gamut of emotions from exultant joy to sheer desperation in Juntunen’s forthright interpretation. The playfulness that imbues the poetry and music of “Ball game at Trianon” was caught with ease in the performances, whilst “Did I just dream?” found Juntunen and Kytömäki in refulgent vein. A further Sibelius song, “Illalle”, was given as a much-welcomed encore. It is hoped that both artists are welcomed again to Wigmore Hall as soon as their schedules allow.