Von Otter Celebrates Shakespeare in Song at Oxford Liederfest


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – Shakespeare in Song: Purcell, Schubert, Berlioz, Debussy, Sibelius, Korngold, Britten, Tippett, Porter, Wainwright: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano), Simon Robson (reader), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford 24.10.2016. (CR)

Purcell: If music be the food of love, Z379
Vaughan Williams: Orpheus with his lute
Britten: Fancie
Schubert: An Silvia, D891
Britten: Welcome, wanderer … I know a bank; This is thy negligence;
Korngold: O Mistress Mine, Op.29 No.2; Adieu, Good Man Devil, Op. 29 No. 3
Debussy: The Little Shepherd, L119 No. 5
Berlioz: La mort d’Ophélie, Op.18 No.2
Anonymous: Desdemona’s Song
Sibelius: Kom nu hit, död, Op.60 No.1; Hållilå, uti storm och regn, Op.60 No.2
Tippett: Come unto these yellow sands; Full fathom five; Where the bee sucks
Rufus Wainwright: Sonnet 43; Sonnet 20
Cole Porter: Brush up your Shakespeare

It seems that the organisers of the Oxford Lieder Festival could not let the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death pass without comment, and by doing so during this year’s ongoing ‘Schumann Project’ pointed up the surprising fact that this composer did not set the words of the playwright whose influence was otherwise felt so strongly by the exponents of the Romantic movement, whether in literature or music.

The wide stylistic variety of songs performed here by Anne Sofie von Otter inevitably meant that there were some hostages to fortune, most obviously, the interpretation of Purcell’s ‘If music be the food of love’ which was somewhat mannered, and not very idiomatic in the unique way required of that composer’s astute setting of English words. Her vibrato also sounded dry in Vaughan Williams’s ‘Orpheus with his lute’ rather than serenely radiant, despite the relatively brisk pace set by Julius Drake at the piano in that setting.

Von Otter proved a much more winning performer when the music required her to characterise, or even virtually to act out, the text more explicitly, and doubtless her experience of singing more popular music assisted in that, expressed through the smoky timbre of her voice at times, or interpreting the music in a less classically formal manner. The Britten settings extracted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream were a success in that regard, such as her sly and furtive way with the ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’ sequence, and a mischievous manner in Tippett’s two songs from The Tempest capturing the mercurial character of Ariel. Schubert’s ‘An Silvia’ was projected more strongly than usual, perhaps, but nonetheless there was a sparkle to her singing which, together with Drake’s lightness of touch at the keyboard, brought out a certain irony in Shakespeare’s words.

Her use of portamento in the Korngold songs evoked the more louche world of pre-War Hollywood, particularly with the high spirits and abandon of ‘Adieu, Good Man Devil’, whilst in sharp contrast she then brought a soft intensity to Berlioz’s ‘La mort d’Ophélie’ with its wistful rhapsodic lines, though sometimes she failed to sustain a musical phrase to its end consistently through their trailing off weakly. In a completely different mood again, the two Sibelius songs from Twelfth Night were effective in their brooding, introspective atmosphere, with a particularly muscular accompaniment from Drake in ‘Kom nu hit, död’. Von Otter approached Rufus Wainwright’s setting of two Sonnets with a natural fluency even if the music itself was indistinctive.

The songs were interspersed with Simon Robson’s dramatic readings of extracts from various plays. The programme was divided into six ‘chapters’ according to theme, though overall there remained something of the disjointed character of a cabaret, rather than a clearly defined subject to hold the disparate parts together. Still, the interaction between von Otter and Robson was vivid, or between Robson and Drake even, as the former recited some extracts from Hamlet whilst Debussy’s The Little Shepherd was played on the keyboard; there Drake brought out a folksong-like otherworldliness in this piece whose melodies call to mind two other piano works of this composer, Voiles and L’isle joyeuse. Von Otter and Robson came together to leaven the mood at the end with Cole Porter’s ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’, even if they might have been less straight-laced about it, though as an encore they performed two more verses, with topical and amusing references to Brexit and Donald Trump to provide some scurrilous humour.

Curtis Rogers

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