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NSO's Delicate Dreams with von Otter

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Schubert, Lieder, A. S. von Otter, T. Quasthoff, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, C. Abbado
One of the hallmarks of Christoph Eschenbach's tenure at the National Symphony Orchestra in the past three years has been the introduction of music new to the ensemble's repertoire, or the reintroduction of music long neglected by it. That trend continued last night with the second of two NSO programs for the Kennedy Center's ongoing Nordic Cool festival. Actually, while last week's excellent Finnish program was truly Nordic, this concert was Nordic only by a stretch, because mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter happens to be Swedish. If it means a second chance to hear von Otter, who performed a concert on Monday night that was instantly one of the year's highlights, you will not hear me complain -- especially since this was her NSO debut, and in pieces heard only once from the NSO, back in 1948.

Von Otter sang a set of exquisite Schubert songs, in evocative and colorful orchestrations by Max Reger and others, all but one of which she recorded live in Paris for a super disc with Thomas Quasthoff and Claudio Abbado (preferring here Reger's arrangement of Erlkönig over Berlioz's). The NSO offered some of its most subtle playing in support of von Otter, who never had to sing with more sound than she needed to dramatize the text, and Eschenbach helped to accompany her with suave support as she sped up or slowed the tempo at points. The winds were little more than a whisper in the tiny echoes of von Otter's melody in the melancholy Gretchen am Spinnrade, a detail not in Schubert's original accompaniment but added by Reger. Benjamin Britten's ingenious, slightly odd arrangement of Die Forelle, with the slippery trout motif in the clarinet but also echoed in other instruments, was loopy and fun, the anonymous orchestration of An Sylvia forthright and blustery, and Erlkönig a spine-tingling narrative. As in her solo recital, the most noteworthy songs were the most quiet and still ones, the tragic Romanze from Rosamunde and poignant, crepuscular Im Abendrot, with the NSO a flexible, murmuring backdrop. A welcome encore provided more of that character, Reger's orchestration of another Schubert Lied, Nacht und Träume, set to poetry by Matthäus Kasimir von Collin (1779-1824). It has been a good month for Schubert -- with an excellent piano recital by Paul Lewis last weekend and a violin and piano program by Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien coming up at the at Baltimore Museum of Art -- and one wished that the whole program could have been given over to von Otter.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, National Symphony offers a quirky, diverse and sometimes soaring program (Washington Post, March 8)
Mahler's Blumine, the ethereal slow movement eventually removed by the composer from his first symphony and here in its debut performance by the NSO, provided a glowing introduction to the Schubert set. Eschenbach led a quiet, floating rendition of the work, with elegant trumpet solos by NSO principal Steven Hendrickson. The tempo, it must be said, was extremely slow, perhaps stretching the piece into something other than what Mahler really intended, but the effect of time-suspending stasis was one to which I happily surrendered. Sadly, I was called away from this concert at intermission, for family reasons, so I cannot offer any thoughts on the NSO's first performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass since 1994, on the second half, with the University of Maryland Concert Choir and four soloists, not including von Otter.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday night (March 8 and 9, 8 pm).

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