Arttu Kataja Sings Serious Songs


SIBELIUS: Svarta rosor. Der första kyssen. Norden. Säv, säv susa. Die stille Radt. Aus banger Brust. Im Feld ein Mädchen. Var det en Dröm? Kom nu hit, död. BRAHMS: Four Serious Songs. SCHUMANN: 6 Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem. KUULA: Yö. Tuijotin tulehnen kauan. Sinipika. Heidezauber. Suutelo. Jääkukkia / Arttu Kataja, bar; Paulina Tukiainen, pno / Alba ABCD 456-1

Arttu Kataja is a Finnish baritone who has worked for several years in Germany, and he has long wanted to create an album like this. He began with Brahms’ Four Serious Songs and Schumann’s 6 Poems by Nicholas Lenau and Requiem, to which he added Finnish songs by both the well-known composer Jean Sibelius and the little-known Toivo Kuula (1883-1918).

Of these Finnish songs, I would think that every serious collector of famous singers of the past will know Svarta rösor and Säv, säv susa since these were staples in tenor Jussi Björling’s song repertoire from the late 1930s until the time of his death in 1960, but the others will probably be unfamiliar to Western ears.

Kataja certainly has the right voice for such music: an extraordinarily dark baritone, almost a bass-baritone with a low range that could easily encompass several lyric bass roles (well, lyric-dramatic, like King Philip in Don Carlo) and power to spare. But he also has a lieder singer’s sense of word-interpretation, which puts him (for me) on a par with the very best of modern lieder singers such as Johannes Martin Kränzle, Diana Damrau, etc. And although he is subtle when the song calls for it, he has no qualms about unleashing the power of his voice when he feels it appropriate to do so. Thus we hear, within the course of the first few songs, his powerful, almost Wotan-like delivery of Svarta rosor and his extremely lyrical phrasing in Norden. Although his voice has an entirely different, Nordic-Germanic sort of timbre, there is much in his vocal richness and use of the voice that reminded me very much of the late Leonard Warren, my all-time favorite American baritone (second and third place go to Lawrence Tibbett and Sherrill Milnes), though Warren only sang lieder occasionally and Milnes very rarely.

Kataja also does a fine job of paring down the voice in Säv, säv susa, though there are dramatic moments in this song as well that he does not shy away from. Of course, the reader will understand that I’m trying to describe both Kataja’s vocal approach as well as the general mood of each song, but in an age when far too many large-voiced baritones have wobbles, spreading tones or other vocal defects, it’s just such a pleasure to hear a singer who “has it all” that I’m just overawed by this man’s talent.

Nor should one underestimate the contribution of pianist Paulina Tukiainen. In the photo of the two of them together Kataja dwarfs her in stature but clearly not in talent. She is every inch a great pianist and a fine accompanist, adding drama of her own to each and every song. I was especially impressed by the duo’s performance of Sibelius’ Im Feld ein Mädchen, a song about a young woman singing sadly in a field, perhaps about the death of a loved one. This is some of the most tender singing that Kataja does on the entire album.

Kataja is also particularly good in the Sibelius song taken from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “Come away, Death,” and in the Brahms Four Serious Songs his singing and interpretation are almost as good as that of the legendary Ukrainian bass Alexander Kipnis. I did, however, feel that his tempo for Schumann’s “Lied eines Schmiedes” was a bit too slow, thus missing the energy of the rocking rhythm that Schumann set up for it, but “Meine rose” was perfect.

The songs of Toivo Kuula are similarly dark and moody, much like Sibelius’ from the same period, which makes sense since he studied privately with the older composer from 1906 to 1908. According to Wikipedia, a Swedish critic (unnamed) one said that “Kuula’s music reaches parts of the human spirit where one is forced to deep examination of one’s self.” He was a naturally morbid and argumentative person, and died while having an argument with a huntsman who shot him.

This is a superb album. Its only drawback is that the song texts are only in the original language. Highly recommended, however.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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