Composers: Korngold, Berg, Zemlinsky, Mahler, Schoenberg
Compositions: Songs
Performers: Camilla Tilling s, Paul Rivinius p
Catalogue Number: BIS BIS2414

Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling’s latest recital offers listeners a musical portrait of a changing city. At the turn of the 20th century Vienna was a city of collisions and contrasts, pulled between conservatism and experimentation, rigid class divisions and liberal intellectualism, the splendour of the Ringstrasse and the squalor of the slums. The result was the “Jugendstil” (Youth Style), which took the city from decorative Art Nouveau innocence to the cooler, geometric abstraction of modernism, from peace to war.

Tilling resists a chronological journey, instead celebrating contrast. We are plunged straight into the heady intensity of Korngold’s Einfache Lieder (1911-16) before swinging back from Berg’s exploratory Sieben frühe Lieder (1905-1908) to the simpler sweetness of Zemlinsky’s Walzer-Gesänge (1899), ending with Mahler at a crossroads of expansive excess and darker restraint in the Rückert-Lieder. It’s a wise choice, and one that keeps ears and emotions alert to the shifting currents. Tilling’s is a wonderfully flexible instrument, silvery-bright at the top, but with an unexpected warmth and guttural edge lower in the voice that brings the bolder colours of cabaret to Korngold’s Schneeglöckchen. Tilling flirts with consonants, now clicking them as though with stiletto heels, now coaxing them into smoke-ringed softness.

But just when we’re settling into Korngold and Berg’s rhapsodic language, we’re pulled up by the almost Schubertian freshness and clean lines of Zemlinsky’s folk-poem settings. Tilling is at her best in these pencil-sketches of nature – birds, roses, stars, the moon – where restraint speaks louder than excess, and her interplay with pianist Paul Rivinius is at its most conversational and instinctive.

Only when we reach the Mahler do I start to question our guides. The ecstatic, arms-wide stretch of an opening to Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft! shivers with sensuality, but is there too much consoling warmth in the chilly semitone shiver that begins Um Mitternacht? Tilling’s expressive flexibility meets its match here in Mahler’s numbed, colour-drained landscape of grief.