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An Exquisite Hour with Anne Sofie von Otter

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Grieg, Songs, A. S. von Otter, B. Forsberg


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Sibelius, Songs, A. S. von Otter, B. Forsberg

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Swedish Songs (Peterson-Berger, Stenhammar, von Koch), A. S. von Otter, B. Forsberg
Your critic, and no one is likely to argue with me on this, is not accustomed to writing raves. Most concerts offered at a professional level are generally good, some have particular strengths (and weaknesses) that merit mention, a small number are exceptional, only a few truly extraordinary. Once in a very rare while, I hear a concert that attains that crucial combination of diverting programming performed to an impeccable standard by musicians who seem perfectly matched to the music they are performing. The Monday night recital by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg, offered by the Fortas Chamber Music series in the context of the Kennedy Center's Nordic Cool festival in the Terrace Theater (both artists are Swedish), was in that category. After von Otter's last recital in the area, with music drawn from her top-notch Terezín album, we looked forward to great things, possibly inflated expectations that make the achievement all the more remarkable.

One part of the evening's success was the choice of music, full of contrast and range in many courses, like the best meals. The opening pairing, of two songs by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942), was a case in point: the sweeping, epic Intet är som väntanstider (Nothing is like waiting time, from Fridolin's Songs), with Forsberg swooping and swelling on the broad piano part, followed by the dreamy ballad Som stjärnorna på himmelen (Like the stars in the sky -- all singers, go look this song up now, from the Four Songs in Swedish Folktone, op. 5/3), a delicate pastry of delicious consonants and vowels, with Forsberg in both cases knowing just how much sound to provide to support his singer. That Peterson-Berger wrote the opera Arnljot (considered the Swedish national opera, according to the program notes) and was a fierce newspaper critic was icing on the cake. The whole Swedish set -- no "titans," as von Otter put it, but all worth discovering (see her CD of Swedish songs to do just that) -- was like this, with pairings devoted to Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) -- the chromatically enticing In the Maple's Shade a stand-out -- and Sigurd von Koch (1879-1919), whose Debussy-misty Spring Night's Rain and equally wild, thrashing The Wild Swans were both thrilling.

A set of Sibelius songs, also set to Swedish poetry, was almost a let-down after that, with the exception of the gloomy, surprising My Bird Is Long in Homing, quickly surpassed by the Grieg pairing -- the stately and tender Våren (Spring) and the swaggering lover's boast of Midsummer Eve. The strength of the Nordic half was not the size or volume of von Otter's voice, which could be full and radiant but also elegant and contained, but the delectation of the poetry, like the experience of bathing in Ibsen's Norwegian last week. After spending intermission wishing von Otter would stick to these Nordic songs, it was a welcome surprise to be equally taken by her French diction and way with artless simplicity in French songs, especially Reynaldo Hahn's setting of Paul Verlaine's L'Heure Exquise standing out in a generally fine Hahn set. In the same vein of vaguely perverse sensuality was Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, with Forsberg's hands providing corrupt pastel wisps of sound behind the evocative melody presented with understated eloquence by von Otter.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Anne Sofie von Otter, accompanist Bengt Forsberg beguile with their easy style (Washington Post, March 6)
Forsberg was a consummate accompanist in all of these songs, and he also provided a few brief solo piano moments of vocal rest for his soloist. The best of these was Debussy's prelude Des pas sur la neige, appended without a break to the end of the Bilitis set, to which it provided an apt postlude, continuing from the third song, about a snowy walk to a frozen naiad spring. Forsberg's take on this piece, an animated story-telling incantation, was everything one missed in the performance by Víkingur Ólafsson last week. The other solo selections were less entrancing -- Sibelius's Brahmsian Romance in A Major (op. 24/2), Grieg's murky, unorthodox Rotnamsknut (op. 72/7), Chabrier's restless Idylle (from Pièces pittoresques), unraveled quite beautifully -- but always diverting, unexpected, and perfectly suited to the songs they accompanied. A final set of Canteloube folk songs, selected from Chants d'Auvergne, was perfumed with nostalgia and odd quirks, the whirring wheel of The Spinner (in both piano and the singer's spiralling "Ti lirou lirou" refrain) and cuckoo calls dotting the music hall comedy of Lou Coucut. Two encores brought down the house -- Charles Trenet's Boum!, given a manic and hilarious rendition, and a charming little song by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, two of the the artists formerly known as ABBA.

Anne Sofie von Otter remains in Washington this week, with some rare Nordic weather nicely planned for her, because she will also sing a set of Schubert songs, in some interesting orchestrations, with the National Symphony Orchestra (March 7 to 9).


Anonymous said...

100 % agree with your 'call to singers' to look for Som stjärnorna på himmelen ! Unfortunately can not find the score....

Charles T. Downey said...

It's not on IMSLP -- yet. I will look it up at the Library of Congress when I get a chance. Gorgeous song.