Anne Sofie von Otter in Philadelphia: A Singer With All the Virtues

United StatesUnited States Purcell, Dowland, Robert Johnson, Kapsberger, Dalza, Provenzale, Couperin, Michel Lambert, de Visée, M.-A. Charpentier, Rameau, Pärt, et al.: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Dunford (theorbo), Jonathan Cohen (harpsichord and organ), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 11.11.2015. (BJ)

Purcell: Music for a while; What power art thou, from King Arthur; Fairest isle, from King Arthur
Dowland: Come again, sweet love; Can she excuse my wrongs; The King of Denmark’s Galliard; Fine knacks for ladies; Lachrimae
Robert Johnson: Have you seen but a white lily grow
Kapsberger: Toccata No. 6
Dalza: Calata
Provenzale: Squarciato appena havea
Couperin: Les Barricades mystérieuses
Michel Lambert: Ma bergère est tendre et fidèle; Vos mépris chaque jour
de Visée: Chaconne in D minor
M.-A. Charpentier: Chanson à danser: Celle qui fait mon tourment
Rameau: Les Sauvages
Pärt: My heart’s in the highlands

announced songs and encores by Björk, Kate Bush, Sting, Monteverdi, and Springsteen

If what you hope the singer giving a recital will offer is a combination of vocal allure; technical mastery; respect for partners sharing the stage as well as an imaginative interplay with them; a stimulating and satisfying choice of repertoire; care for the meanings of words and for the stylistic distinctions that reveal composers’ individuality; and sovereign grace of deportment—well, you are likely to find yourself quite often disappointed in at least one or another of those particulars.

But not when the singer is Anne Sofie von Otter. From the very first moment of this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital, the celebrated Swedish mezzo, as stunning a woman as ever at the age of 60, dominated the stage with a blend of dignity, warmth, and humor, yet according plenty of well-chosen solo opportunities and full recognition of the applause they garnered to her young and greatly gifted collaborators, Thomas Dunford and Jonathan Cohen.

A few years ago, I had the impression that the von Otter voice was losing a little of its strength and luster, but she has evidently husbanded it skillfully, for there was ample volume and bloom on this occasion when the music demanded it, while in many sustained passages of soft singing she preserved an impeccable clarity of line.

And what a rich treasure-house of music it was! There can be few singers in the world who can match Ms. von Otter’s range of stylistic insight. It stretches all the way from Adolphe Adam to Alexander von Zemlinsky, and from the refined  atmosphere of such high renaissance and baroque masters as Dowland, Monteverdi, Purcell, and Couperin, by way of a momentarily risqué 17th-century piece by the little-known Francesco Provenzale, to the more modern imagination of Arvo Pärt (in a restrained and charming setting of Robert Burns) and the distinctly demotic idioms of Björk, Kate Bush, Sting, and Springsteen.

Speaking of the demotic element, the singer departed from her pervading elegance of diction in Dowland’s uncharacteristically rollicking Fine knacks for ladies, cockney-fying her vowels hilariously with the full support of Messrs. Dunford and Cohen, who joined in vocally as well as instrumentally for this one song, while both achieved high levels of intimate poetry in their solos, including surpassingly delicate performances of Dowland’s Lachrimae and Couperin’s Les Barricades mystérieuses.

It is indeed partly for her ability to extract vivid color from the words she sings that I have always ranked Ms. von Otter high among my favorite singers. If you have never heard her performance of the title role in Marc Minkowski’s recording of Handel’s Ariodante, and most particularly her singing of the aria “Dopo notte,” I venture to suggest that you do not yet comprehend the full expressive richness of the word “gioia,” such an unprecedentedly exultant glow does she bring to this little word that I thought I knew so well. And at the opposite extreme to that triumphant warmth, in this recital she captured the humor of the Cold Genius’s song “What power art thou,” from Purcell’s King Arthur, to bone-chilling perfection.

Too often, PCMS’s vocal recitals draw disappointingly sparse houses. This one, I was happy to see, was attended by a reasonably plentiful audience, if not by the sell-out crowd it deserved.

Bernard Jacobson

1 thought on “Anne Sofie von Otter in Philadelphia: A Singer With All the Virtues”

  1. I was there and I couldn’t agree more or said it better. Thank you Bernard Jacobson, who (at least every time I read him) not only informs and critiques so well but also has a knack for giving the occasion life. And, more importantly, thank you Annie Sofie von Otter. Please come back soon!


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