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It may have been cold outside Mandel Hall Sunday–a fresh dusting of snow greeted exiting audience members–yet Anne Sofie von Otter and Angela Hewitt provided ample and delightful musical harbingers of spring.
The statuesque Swedish mezzo-soprano–elegantly clad in a velvet purple gown–provided a virtual model of what a successful vocal recital should be in her appearance in the University of Chicago Presents series. Hewitt proved a full partner with her vocal colleague.
If the selection of German and French songs leaned towards the lighter side of the repertory—spring, flowers and wistful love were the main leitmotivs—so characterful, polished and expressive was van Otter’s singing that the net effect was greater than the sum of its parts.
At an age when most singers are moving into retirement, von Otter’s high mezzo remains in superb repair—flexible, gleaming and even throughout her range. Only a hint of tonal dryness on some high notes betrayed the passing years.
In her opening Beethoven set, von Otter brought an apt verdant freshness to “Maigesang” (Song of May) and subdued tragic expression to “In questa tomba oscura.” She also showed her knack for comic flair in the wryly satiric “Es war einmal ein Konig” about a king’s adoption of a flea, offering a varied array of subtle itching that was quite hilarious.
Highlights of her Schubert group included a piquant rendering of “Heldenroslein” and a fast and rollicking “Der Musensohn.” Best was von Otter’s rapt “Im Abendrot,” the mezzo bringing poised, beautifully even tone to this ode to nature. If her Brahms set was, at times, a bit generalized, she brought tender affection to “Ruhe, Sussliebchen” and an intense joy at the return of spring in “Der Fruhling.”
Fine as the German songs were, the French repertory that made up the second half largely showed von Otter’s art at its best, the light caprice and more allusive style fitting her voice and personality.
The singer brought ardent expression to Gabriel Faure’s ode to hidden love, “Le secret”, and playful charm to Reynaldo Hahn’s “Quand je fus pris aux pavillon.” While Debussy’s mini-cycle Chansons de Bilitis was sung sensitively and with dedication, the sensuality and languor of the settings were strangely missing.
The highlight of the afternoon was music by a composer that was likely a discovery to most in the audience, Cecile Chaminade. As von Otter elucidated in her verbal notes, Chaminade was more acclaimed as a pianist then a composer in the first half of her lifetime (1857-1944), later giving up music entirely to become a nurse during World War I.
Chaminade’s songs may hover between the salon and concert hall, yet the best possess a melodic indelibility and emotional depth that are no less moving for the light style and economy of means.
Von Otter has recorded Chaminade’s songs and proved a supreme advocate for the inexplicably neglected French composer. The jaunty rhythms of “Si j’etais jardinier” were delectable from von Otter as was the charming operetta-like “Voisinage.” Yet Chaminade was capable of real depths too, as with the gorgeous love song “Viens, mon bien-aime!” quite beautifully rendered by von Otter and Hewitt. “Ronde d’amour”ended the set in cheerful fashion yet it was the delicate melancholy of “L’anneau d’argent” that resonated in the memory.
Hewitt proved a most sympathetic partner for von Otter throughout the afternoon, playing with greater strength than many pianists yet always with a range of hues and tonal delicacy.
A gracious colleague, von Otter is a rare singer who also lets her keyboard collaborators have their moments in the sun, and Hewitt prefaced the song sets nicely with solo piano works. Although she is best known as a Bach specialist, the Canadian pianist showed her versatility in a flowing Schubert Impromptu in G flat and deep and eloquent account of Brahms’ Intermezzo in E flat major. The French songs were preceded by Chabrier’s “Idylle” and a fizzing Bouree fantasque that captured the vivacious Gallic bravura.
The enthusiastic applause brought the two women back for a pair of encores. Von Otter floated a magical performance of “Parlez-moi d’amour” by Jean Lenoir, rounded off with a softly blown kiss. Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” can often sound trite, yet von Otter’s light touch and sincerity made it a fitting coda to a sterling afternoon of music, warming the audience for their exit into the snowy night.
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