MOZART: Das Veilchen. Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte. Abendempfindung an Laura. Dans un bois solitaire. Der Zauberer. BARTÓK: Village Scenes (Slovak Folksongs) (sung in German). BRAHMS: 5 Songs from 42 Deutches Volkslieder. SCHUMANN: 9 Lieder from Myrthen. STRAUSS: Schlechtes Wetter. Die Nacht. Ach, lieb, ich muss nun scheiden. Meinem Kinde. Hat gesagt – beibt’s nicht dabei. WOLF: Auf kleine Dinge / Edith Mathis, sop; Karl Engel, pno / Audite 95.647 (live: Lucerne, September 3, 1975)
Back in the early 1980s, when I was writing occasionally for Opera News, one of the editors, a woman, called to tell me what she thought was good news: I had been chosen to interview soprano Helen Donath. But there was one problem. For me, Donath was just a pretty voice with no interpretive skills, and so I turned it down. When the flabbergasted editor asked me why, I told her: “To me, Donath is an uninteresting singer. Couldn’t I interview Edith Mathis instead? She sings the same repertoire but is so much more interesting.” Unfortunately, Donath was coming to the Met that year and Mathis wasn’t, so that was that. Not surprisingly, I was never asked to interview another singer, but what was I going to ask her? “How do you sing so prettily? What are your favorite pretty-voice roles? What pretty roles will you be singing at the Met?”
In this 1975 recital, Mathis is in fine voice and oune can immediately sense, in the opening number (Mozart’s Das Veilchen), that she is interpreting the words and not just producing pretty sounds. With that being said, she introduces some moments of relaxing the tempo in these songs which has since been proven musically incorrect but was stubbornly held on to in German-speaking countries well into the 1970s. This, sadly, dates her approach though it does not detract from her high musicianship. In comparison to Donath, who had a pearl-like quality in her voice, Mathis’ tone is penny-bright. Karl Engel proves to be a fine pianist who worked hand-in-glove with the singer.
Bartók’s Village Scenes is clearly unusual repertoire for Mathis, but this is exactly the kind of thing that distanced her from Donath (and Ameling, another pretty voice with no interpretive skills). She digs into these songs with great relish, giving them their just due, and making the fairly conservative Lucerne audience like them. Apparently uncomfortable with Hungarian, Mathis sings them in a German translation. By this point her voice had really warmed up and she was able to float some notes beautifully into the ether. This is one of the great artistic highlights of this recital.
Mathis followed the Bartók folk songs with volkslieder of Brahms, light and lively songs which she sang with great attention to detail. She lavished the same care on the nine selections from Robert Schumann’s Myrthen, surely little-known material by this great composer with the exception of No. 3, Der Nussbaum, which Mathis sang superbly.
Another example of her musical curiosity are the unusual Strauss songs she chose to sing, opening with one of his most unusual, Rough Weather, with its surprisingly bitonal introduction. Hat gesagt calls for some surprisingly virtuosic singing in the opening lines, which Mathis handled with ease. The audience claps in rhythm at the end of the recital, demanding that she return for an encore. Her offering is not some soubrette chestnut, but Hugo Wolf, Auf kleine dinge, which she sings at a bit of a brisker tempo than I’m used to, but still an effective performance.
For those who remember Edith Mathis, this recital is a must-hear, but probably even more so for those who, used only to her Sophie in the trashy Der Rosenkvalier, don’t know what a superb artist she was.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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