For his Washington debut recital yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, Finnish baritone Jorma Hynninen brought out the best of two worlds: the naturalistic settings chosen by Jean Sibelius, a composer better known for his symphonic works, and the psychodramas of Hugo Wolf, whose lieder require equal partnership between singer and accompanist to elevate texts beyond literary abstraction. Hynninen addressed 22 songs plus three encores with workmanlike efficiency, using warm chest tones and a clear upper register in persuasive accounts of subjects ranging from a water sprite to a fire-rider.
He allowed himself no warm-up period and didn't need one, jumping right into "Der Freund," the first of five Wolf-Eichendorff collaborations. His interpretations were consistently right on the mark. Sibelius' "Sigh, sedges, sigh" received a delicate touch without becoming overly precious; "Under the Fir Trees on the Shore" loomed dark and menacing.
Hynninen waxed comical and nearly hysterical in the concluding "Mo rike" lieder. That these selections were the concert's high point was no accident. Pianist Ralf Gotho'ni, a Hynninen accomplice for nearly 18 years, turned in sterling support by helping to establish and intensify each mood. Surrounding the fire-rider's tragic death flight were an ode to artists who dare call on their muses when hung over from the night before and a good-riddance tale of an uninvited critic sent tumbling down the steps by what, many would argue, was the swift kick of Justice.