Few singers have a reputation as enduringly bright as Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. For three decades she has inhabited that serendipitous ground where beauty of voice meets an innate sense of character and formidable dramatic skills. In the eyes of many, she is the top singing actress performing today. An opportunity to see her in recital was inevitably going to be exciting, though at this stage in a singer’s career there is always a slight concern about vocal decline. There was no need to be worried: Mattila’s voice retains the beauty and sheer power of a decade or so ago, deployed in a programme that, with one or two exceptions, was bound to show it off at its best.

Karita Mattila © Lauri Eriksson
Karita Mattila
© Lauri Eriksson

We started with Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder, a set of eight songs mined from the rich seam of Hungarian music that was a strong inspiration for the composer. This, in many respects, was the weakest part of the programme: the songs did not seem to be the perfect fit for Mattila’s voice and there was an inevitable warm-up period where clarity of diction was not at its best, and vocal might was a little less restrained than ideal. By the sixth song, Röslein dreie in der Reihe blühn so rot, delicacy of delivery was fully stabilised, and in the seventh, Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn, the tone was sung with such nobility and purity that the eyes were pricked. Very little wear shows in the voice – only at the very top was there a slight thinning, but even there though, she has avoided the cruel wavering of the veteran singer and retained an even steadiness.

Mattila’s finest part of the evening was in Wagner where she gave a superlative performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. The greatest Wagnerians are those who can savour and bring forth the composer’s poetry. With Stehe still, the second of the songs, we had the finest example, every word caressed and infused with meaning, the tone ecstatic and the consequent impact painfully moving. Her lower register is a glorious instrument: warm and dark, it’s unusually distinctive and gives the voice greater richness – beautifully deployed in her performance of Der Engel. Mattila’s Wagner credentials are impeccable (one thinks back to her concert at the Barbican where she outshone Jonas Kaufmann) and a large part of that is her technique – her phrasing and sense of line in the final song, Träume, arching and luxurious. The effect was intoxicating, almost inebriating, and the timing of the interval was considerate. Rarely have large gulps of air been so badly needed, which is probably what Wagner would have hoped for!

The second half of the programme began with Vier Lieder by Berg, a composer whose early career was dedicated to songs. On one level, Mattila’s voice was wasted here: the first three songs are interesting works, but their crafted emptiness denies opportunities for the richness of the previous pieces. The first song, Schlafen, schlafen, was well controlled and evocatively sung, the voice filed down and restrained, before being unleashed in the final song, Warm die Lüfte in spectacular delivery – her enunciation of the word “Stirb” was chilling. The concert’s final segment was given over to another of Mattila’s signature composers, Richard Strauss, in seven songs. Her higher register was at full blast here, Der Stern and Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten being particularly well treated. Mattila still has enough control to deliver well-honed pianissimo, both in the Strauss (Wiegenlied) and earlier in the Wagner. A rapturous Cäcile concluded the set programme, but Mattila was generous with her encores, the best of which was the first (of three), a sassy and spirited Eine kleine Sehnsucht.

It was a memorable evening: Mattila sang without score and her pianist, Ville Matvejeff, was an excellent accompanist, at his best when offering a perfumed reading of the Wagner. Based on this recital, Mattila still remains on the top of her game and an early retirement does not appear to beckon, for which we should all be grateful.