Von Otter and Hewitt offer exquisite evening of song at Jordan Hall
Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Angela Hewitt spoiled Boston audiences for vocal events with an exquisite recital Friday night in the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Von Otter turns 59 this year, and though her voice has lost some body, it is still a highly sensitive—and beautiful—instrument capable both of immaculately detailed singing and warm outpourings when required. She has said that unusual musical collaborations have kept her excited about performing, and this recital with Hewitt was certainly a very successful one. The two were wonderfully in synch, and their styles—marked by sensitivity and attention to detail—meshed well.
The duo chose a program of German lieder and French art songs that was generally light in character—wistful, innocent, joyful, and never stentorian. The German portion of the program opened the recital. A set of Beethoven songs was included, von Otter explained, precisely because Beethoven is not usually associated with lieder.
The highlights of this set were the haunting “In questa tomba oscura” and the comic “Es war einmal ein Konig.” Beethoven’s conception of the ideal female seems to be one indignantly berating men for their injustice—Leonora in Fidelio and the concert aria Ah! Perfido come to mind. But in “In questa tomba oscura,” the protagonist speaks from the grave, and von Otter found a drained, eerie voice perfect for the “role,” masterfully measuring out the amount of vibrato in her voice in a manner reminiscent of Baroque opera. The spry “Es war einmal ein Konig,” which came right after, gave von Otter the chance to play with her timbre and to provide a splash of comic acting, pretending to slap at the royal flea that is the subject of the song. One remembers that von Otter did more than sing lieder in her three-decade career, and still maintains a strong presence on the opera stage.
The rest of the German lieder consisted of selections by Schubert and Brahms. Schubert’s “Der Musensohn,” though properly rollicking and given a wealth of detail, was perhaps one of the weaker pieces. The pace of the song and von Otter’s conscientious enunciation seemed to compromise her projection. The highlight from the Schubert selections was the beautifully poised “Im Abendrot.” Von Otter used a hushed, innocent tone to poignant effect in a song that is, in effect, a prayer. The Brahms set was highlighted by “Ruhe, Sussliebchen, im Schatten,” which von Otter sang with a combination of tenderness and strength.
The second half featured French songs, and their rendering was even more detailed, vivid, and unerring than that of the German pieces. Von Otter’s interplay with Hewitt in Faure’s setting of Verlaine’s ambiguous proto-modernist poem “Clair de lune,” was one highlight, as was Faure’s paean to covert love, “Le secret,” which provided moments for von Otter to fully unfurl her voice.
Possibly the most captivating part of the recital was the duo’s handling of Debussy’s setting of Trois chansons de Bilitis. These three songs implicitly portray a young girl’s sexual awakening in pagan Greece. Hewitt and von Otter conjured a mythic pastoral atmosphere, and von Otter’s approach was simple, befitting that of a young shepherdess, but with a soft undercurrent of sensuality.
Rounding out the French songs were selections by Cecile Chaminade, a forgotten composer active in the first half of the twentieth century. Her songs fell more on the salon side of the spectrum and required less of the performers than the rest of the program, but made their effect with grace and economy. A highlight was the sweeping, Puccini-esque “Viens! mon bien aime.”
In addition to accompanying von Otter, Hewitt played solo piano works as well. The general pattern of the evening was to start a new set of pieces with a solo piano work, during which von Otter sat to the side, followed by the songs. Hewitt began with a beautiful but heavy interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, after which she gave an articulate, moving rendition of Brahms’ Intermezzo in E flat. The selections by French composers were on the virtuosic, show-stopper side, and included a dizzying Bouree fantasque by Chabrier.
Three encore pieces rounded off the evening. After a delicate “Parlez moi d’amour” by Lenoir, von Otter generously pulled out all the stops for Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” roaming the stage like a chanteuse. “Goodnight, sweetheart,” a popular 1930s song and the third encore piece, was given similar treatment, with von Otter winking goodbye and good night to a most appreciative audience.
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