A Cozy Evening with Von Otter, Ax, and Brahms

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Tor Aulin, Nico Muhly: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-Soprano), Emanuel Ax (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 28.1.2014 (DS)

Brahms: “Erlaube mir, feins Mädchen” Es wohnet ein Fiedler” from Deutsche Volkslieder, No. 2
“Mädchenlied,” Op. 85, No. 3
Tor Aulin: “Till en rose” from Fyra serbiska folksanger
Brahms: “Trennung,” Op. 97, No. 6
Intermezzos in A Minor, Op. 118, Nos. 1 and 2
Brahms: “Auf dem Kirchhofe,” “Es schauen di Blumen,” “Sommerabend,” “Juchhe!,” “Von ewiger Liebe,” “Staendchen”
Nico Muhly: So Many Things (New York Premiere)
Brahms: “Nachtwandler,” “Am Sonntag, Morgen, zierlich angetan,” “Ruhe, Suessliebchen”
Intermezzo in B-flat Minor, Op. 117, No. 2; Romanze in F Major, Op. 118, No. 5


Draped in a velvety red Scandinavian-detailed gown, Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano, glided out onto the Carnegie Hall stage. On a frigid New York Tuesday night, it was like being transported back to a cozy childhood, tucked in bed, watching for the glimpse of a mother’s robe turning down the hall, as she came around to sing a lullaby before switching off the lights.

Along with Emmanuel Ax engaged at the piano, von Otter sang idyllically—in a manner, I might presume, most of us did not grow accustomed to hearing before bedtime. The central focus of the performance (part of Ax’s Brahms Project) was a group of Brahms folk songs and lieder, to which von Otter gave an elegant balance of characterization and musical dexterity.

Ax also performed four short Brahms piano works throughout the evening (from Ops. 117 and 118), punctuating the songs with these nuggets of the composer’s particularly intimate emotional expressions. But to diverge from the Brahms Project ever so slightly, the duo included a Serbian folksong by Tor Aulin and a New York premiere by Nico Muhly. The latter work, So Many Things, with its leaping qualities and zestful exercises, was a pleasing addition to a well-received program.

What makes von Otter’s talent noteworthy is in the pure blend of serious technique and playful abandon, both of which gleamed throughout the evening. After her first encore, “Sapphische Ode,” she was particularly revelatory in the second one, “Och Moder, ich well en Ding han” (from Deutsche Volkslieder). In this comic folksong, Brahms captures a frantic mother desperately trying to figure out her teenaged daughter’s needs (you guessed it: “eine Mann!”). Von Otter swung her hips, sniveled, showed annoyance, exclaimed frustration and curtsied, all in a lively reading that caused a huge amount of laughter. It’s not often, as she pointed out, that we get to see Brahms’s funnier side.

Daniele Sahr