Halle/Katie Van Kooten Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

Still in her twenties, Katie Van Kooten, from America's West Coast, claims to have been "a Whitney Houston sort of girl" until she sang opera for the first time at college. You might remember her as the breezy youngster who created a stir when she hit a high note standing in for Angela Gheorghiu in Puccini's La Rondine at the Royal Opera in 2004.

Making her Hallé debut, she brought a rapt beauty to Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, the perfect vehicle for her lyrical yet dramatic voice. Her full, glowing tone soared remarkably easily over the orchestra and her innate feeling for a long phrase allowed the ecstasy and longing of the first two songs to unfold seamlessly. Under Edward Gardner, the orchestra lacked for nothing in definition in this opulent score. All the Straussian subtleties were illuminated, although, unaccountably, Gardner left the two piccolos (distant larks) a shade vulnerable in the closing bars. Over softly caressing strings the burnished horn sound of Laurence Rogers brought "September" to a particularly exquisite close, while Paul Barritt's violin solo took wing in "Beim Schlafengehen". As for Van Kooten, she sounded unforced, unfettered, even – especially in "Frühling" – while showing no inclination to linger unnaturally over music that is already autumnal enough in its sense of elegiac valediction. Her voice seemed to blossom through each piece, radiating myriad colours, to the work's shimmering end.

If the Hallé players made sensitive companions to Van Kooten through Strauss's journeying songs, they were singularly intrepid travellers in Sibelius's stark Nightride and Sunset. Jogging through forest gloom, their emergence into calm sunlight came as a relief from the rather ghostly nocturnal stirrings. Gardner brought an assured and unshowy approach to this and to each of the three movements of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. "My heart sings, full of sadness – the shadows lengthen," reads a diary entry the composer made while working on it. Gardner seemed more than usually aware of the lengthening shadows, while encouraging lush string-playing and giving the brass room to bask in the "Swan theme". His reading was measured, paced from the opening horn call to the savage, sledgehammer chords which close the symphony.

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