Camilla Tilling’s New Recital

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JUGENDSTIL / KORNGOLD: Einfache Lieder: Schneeglöcken; Das Ständchen; Liebesbriefchen; Sommer. Fünf Lieder, No. 1: Glückwunsch. BERG: Sieben frühe lieder. ZEMLINSKY: Walzer-Gesänge. SCHOENBERG: 4 Lieder, Op. 2. MAHLER: Rückert-Lieder: Nos. 1, 3, 7, 6, 5 / Camilla Tilling, sop; Paul Rivinius, pno / Bis SACD-2414

In some ways I’m out of the loop, and one of these is the rise of new Opera Stars, of which Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling is one. Until I heard her on the new Sony recording of Schumann’s Myrthen (see my review HERE), I had never even heard of her, and the reason I hadn’t heard of her is that she sings the Standard Operatic Repertoire (SOR), in which I have only a peripheral interest. I have railed in this blog against performers, both instrumental and vocal, who insist on focusing most of their careers on older music because although I like some of it, it’s passé. We’re living in the 21st century, yet to this day there are performers and audiences who are scared to death of anything written after 1924 unless the music is tonal, melodic, and contains no spiky harmonies. Apparently these people refuse to grow up intellectually. The publisher of one well-known American classical music magazine recently branded the brilliant modern composer Kalevi Aho as a peripheral figure whose music will be forgotten in 50 years. I, for one, would like to see certain older composers completely wiped off the face of the earth, Bruckner, Rubinstein and Korngold being at the top of the list.

But here Tilling starts off her recital with no less than five songs by the most pathetic rip-off Romantic composer of his day, and the music is as treacly and predictable as I imagined it would be, with but a few little harmonic transpositions tossed in for flavor in an otherwise undisturbed flow of banal musical ideas. But hey, she sounds happy, her voice is good, and the reactionary audiences out there will lap it up, so what the heck.

The remainder of this recital contains works by two of the Big Three “New Vienna School” composers, but don’t let that scare you away. Schoenberg’s Op. 2 songs are not at all atonal and Berg’s lieder are not that challenging, either, though they are 10 times more interesting than Korngold’s. Tilling does a nice job on them with her generic interpretive skills and crystalline voice. I should also give a kudos to pianist Paul Rivinius, who sounds more involved and interesting than the usual run of accompanists nowadays.

The title of this album, Jugendstil, refers to the visual art of the late 1890s and early 1900s whose “whiplashes” and “eels” (yes, eels!) first appeared in the tapestries of Hermann Obrist, later incorporated into Gustav Klimt’s painting style, but as annotator Alexander Carpenter rightly points out, one cannot apply the same terms to the music of that time” “As musicologist Carl Dahlhaus famously insisted, there is simply no analogy that can be made between sound and line.” The first and fourth of Berg’s Sieben frühe lieder lean in the direction of atonality without really arriving there, while the rest are quite tonal and melodic. Don’t upset the listener’s apple cart, you know.

I suppose that my somewhat acerbic reaction to this recital stems from the fact that Tilling makes no real distinction between any of the songs here. Regardless of the text, she sings it all with a smile in her voice and a cheerful demeanor, as she did in Schumann’s Myrthen, but except for “Der Nussbaum” which she sang too loudly and not with enough sensitivity, this approach can get by in Schumann’s songs. Not so much in some of the material here. To put it plainly, Tilling is a crowd-pleasing Singer but not yet an Artist from the standpoint of interpretation.

The aesthetic question that this CD poses is whether or not she has any desire or intention of becoming an interpretive artist. The late Jessye Norman was an artist even as a youngster of 18 years old; her artistry grew exponentially as her career progressed. True, she, too, stuck to older composers, yet she had a great affinity for Schoenberg and Mahler that Tilling does not yet show. Norman’s Metropolitan Opera performances of Erwärtung, and her studio recording of it, were masterpieces of vocal art. Tilling sings everything on this recital as if they were Swedish folk songs full of mirth and glee, and they’re not all supposed to be. Therein lays the difference. And yes, I know that Norman and Tilling have very different kinds of voices, but that’s not the point. Edith Mathis and Arleen Augér were great interpreters, and their voices were very similar to Tilling’s. Only in one of Zemlinsky’s waltz-songs (“Ich geh des Nachts”) did I hear anything resembling a real connection to the words rather than generic cheerfulness. I demand more than that. There’s just too much competition out there for me to praise this recital as anything more than a piece of good vocalizing.

I hope the reader will accept my comments as food for thought and not as a callous dismissal of Tilling. She has potential, but at age 48 the clock isn’t just ticking, it has done gone and tocked. Time for her to decide whether to grow as an artist or just sing pleasantly for the rest of her career.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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