Mezzo-soprano Katarina Karneus made a most welcome return to the Wigmore Hall, stylishly accompanied by her frequent collaborator Julius Drake, and offered a persuasive programme of Scandinavian songs.

Winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition way back in 1995, Karneus - it is pleasing and perhaps surprising to report - is now vocally and artistically in her prime. The voice is fuller now than it was, obviously more 'mature', and remains steady as a rock over a wide range from gleaming top to dusky bottom notes. Allied to her always impressive interpretative gifts in song, tonight's recital could not fail to please.

Karneus began with Grieg's settings of Six Poems by Ibsen, a group which demonstrated all her strengths: the dramatic 'Spillemaend' with its ringing climactic note gave way to the introspective and melancholic 'En svane', one of Grieg's most beautiful and popular songs. Karneus and Drake beautifully conveyed the underlying sense of menace in 'Med en vandlilje' as they told the story of the water-sprite that appears to sleep, but perhaps awaits its next victim. The dark and desolate 'Borte' was contrasted with 'En fuglevise' ('A bird's song'), which Karneus sang in her brightest tones, (nearly) all hint of melancholy banished.

The songs of Swedish composer Ture Rangstrom are relatively rarely heard in this country, and appear to rely on the advocacy of singers such as Mattila, Isokoski or Karneus (who sang some of his songs the first time I heard her at the Wigmore Hall, in 1998). It is hard to understand why they are not more widely performed; difficulties with the language perhaps, for non-Scandinavian singers? The highlight of the group on offer tonight was 'Pan', Karneus again modulating her vocal colour and adopting a brighter sound as she sang how 'the whole world harkens to (Pan's) song'.

Still, Karneus perhaps saved the best till last as the first half of the recital concluded with Sibelius' wonderful 'Five Songs Op 37', a varied group that ranges from the folk-like 'Lasse liten' to the justly celebrated 'Var et en drom?' ('Was it a dream?'). Karneus conveyed the restrained passion of this song beautifully, delicately pointing the word 'blick' ('glance') as the narrator recalls the timid and tender look given by a lost lover. This song demands a particularly wide vocal range which Karneus easily encompassed, the top blazing, the low notes dark and full-toned. She ended with an excellent rendition of 'Flickan kom ifran..', another of Sibelius' very best, subtly changing character from concerned mother to abandoned, love-lorn daughter.

The second half of the recital was completely devoted to Grieg's gorgeous cycle, 'Haugtussa'. Usually translated as 'Troll Maidens', this group of songs concerns itself with love gained and then lost (a theme that ran through many of the pieces in this concert) by a young mountain girl. Karneus and Drake gave a masterly performance that would be hard to fault, conveying all the shifting emotions and changes of moods and styles that the work demands. She launched the opening song of the cycle (aptly translated as 'The singing') with beautifully silvery, soprano like tone; she conveyed all the character and lust for life and fun of the young maiden in 'Blabaer-li' and then moved on to the heady passions of 'Mote' ('The Tryst'). In this song she was quite superb; her crescendos evoked the growing passion between the girl and her sweetheart before reaching a near-Wagnerian climax, thrillingly sung by Karneus. Another change of mood from the heady sensuality of 'Mote' to a life free of care comes with the delightful 'Killingdans' ('Kid's dance'), but this mood does not last long; the last two songs of the cycle tell how the girl has been abandoned by her love, and ends with the desolate 'Ved gjaetle-bekken' (At the brook'), as she hopes to forget him and for the pain to end. This last song was particularly beautifully played by Drake, who was on excellent form throughout the concert; indeed, he seemed to have a particular empathy for this Scandinavian repertoire. One also sensed a true musical partnership, a musical ebb and flow, between the two performers that was very gratifying. Let us hope, then, for many more recitals to come from Karneus and Drake.

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