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From Mattila: rare Finns, sketches of Spain

Jordan Hall received a blast of cool Nordic radiance last night as the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila came to town for a rare recital appearance. With encores included, the program spanned six languages (and two dresses), but it was united by this singer's superbly expressive vocalism and her uncanny way of distilling the dramatic essence of each song and then projecting it from head to toe.

The recital, presented by the Bank of America Celebrity Series, opened with an enthralling performance of Barber's "Hermit Songs," but the highlight of the first half was a set of works by four rarely heard Finnish composers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Toivo Kuula, Erkki Melartin, Oskar Merikanto, and Leevi Madetoja. The songs, broadly speaking, were of a late-Romantic flavoring but with distinctive modal touches, and two works referenced the joy conjured by the passage of the long winter into spring. One of them was Merikanto's "When the Sun Shines," which Mattila opened in gloriously full voice, emitting what felt like a brilliant flash of white light. Madetoja's "You Thought I Was Watching You" provided a somber contrast with its beautifully introspective setting of a poem by L. Onerva, the composer's wife.

Things got more relaxed in the second half with a thoughtful grouping of sketches from Spain, both real and imagined. Hugo Wolf's "Spanish Songbook" is the music of an Austrian composer plumbing Spain's poetry in German translation -- and finding plenty left to inspire him. To this Mattila added "La Maja y el Ruisenor" from Granados's "Goyescas" and four richly expressive songs by Juaquin Turina, by the end of which she was dancing Spanish-style as she sang of wishing to be loved "fleetingly and frantically."

In encores by Dvorak, Sibelius, and Gershwin she sailed effortlessly through many moods and colors. I would never have guessed that an artist like Mattila, known for her searing performances in operas like "Elektra" and "Salome," could ham it up like she did in Gershwin's "The Man I Love," but there it was, persuasive and a lot of fun. Pianist Martin Katz played with insight and character throughout the night, ably supporting Mattila and at one point even translating some Swedish.


Karita Mattila, soprano

At: Jordan Hall, last night