Mozart/Weckerlin/Schubert/Lindblad/Geijer; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano, Christoph Berner, piano. Koerner Hall, May 15, 2022
On Sunday afternoon, Toronto classical voice fans heard a recital given by renowned Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. According to Mervon Mehta, RCM Executive Director of Programming, this was von Otter’s third visit to Koerner Hall. Just six days earlier, the mezzo celebrated her 67th birthday.
With few exceptions — Placido Domingo famously comes to mind — that’s an age when a vast majority of classical singers have long sung their farewells. But not von Otter, who feels she still has a lot to give. According to her website, she has been involved in new projects and on a European recital tour. Based on what I heard this afternoon at Koerner Hall, retirement does not appear to be in the cards any time soon.
Strolling onto the Koerner stage with pianist Christoph Berner, von Otter looked statuesque and svelte, altogether astoundingly youthful, a head of white hair notwithstanding. The program consisted of the standard selections of Mozart and Schubert interspersed with the less familiar pieces — at least to us North Americans — by French composer Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin, and two Swedish composers, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad and Erik Gustaf Geijer.
It opened with Mozart’s beautiful “Dans un bois solitaire” sung almost entirely mezza voce, a rather gentle start to the proceedings. Von Otter’s tone at 67 remains youthful, with its typical caressing quality in her delivery. It was only in the very few higher reaches where she was required to sing out that one could hear some unsteadiness to her sound. It only goes to show that no voice, no matter how great the technique, can entirely avoid the passage of time.
It was followed by “Abendempfindung” K523, a work long associated with von Otter. Her peerless recording nearly 30 years ago with pianist Melvyn Tan set the gold standard. The last time I heard her sing this was in a Munich Le nozze di Figaro a few years ago, when stage director Christof Loy caused a sensation by substituting Marcellina’s aria with it. Hearing it again now tells me von Otter can still do it justice, albeit with some technical concessions. The artistry and musicality remain intact, however.
The Weckerlin and Lindblad songs were melodically inspired, written very much in the middle register, which von Otter delivered with the requisite expressivity and gentle beauty of tone. I should point out that she sang a total of 14 songs plus one encore, while a typical song recital has around 20 pieces. Berner was called upon to play four solos, obviously designed to give the singer a rest. With all due respect to Berner who played beautifully, I’d have preferred the singer to do a full program.
Most intriguing to me was the selection of three songs from Winterreise, a cycle not often sung by women. Well, von Otter not only sings it, but together with Christof Loy, created a staged version in which they selected most, but not all, of the 24 songs into a theatrical work, augmented with dancers and actors. It was performed in Theater Basel last season. I was hoping there would be a hint of the staging here at Koerner, but I guess it was wishful thinking on my part.
While on the subject of themed-based performances like von Otter’s Winterreise, I wish that recital programs should contain some comments from the artists regarding why they have chosen their songs, and what they are trying to communicate. I understand that themed programs, while common in Europe and the UK, are rare in North America, the recent DiDonato’s Eden an exception. In opera, we get comments from the stage directors. Why not in recitals, at least those that are thematically based?
Von Otter concluded with a gem from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, “Die Taubenpost,” a fitting end to a lovely recital, a generally low voltage affair without overt theatricality. But von Otter did deliver, effectively if quietly. The smallish audience showed their appreciation with vociferous applause, even a standing ovation. At the risk of being labelled a curmudgeon, I wished it had refrained from applauding after each song within a group.
One final thought. Von Otter is one of several top singers to appear recently at Koerner Hall, others included Joyce DiDonato and Bryn Terfel. Yet the attendance has been singularly disappointing, undoubtedly due to the lingering effects of COVID. Given classical music audiences, particularly in opera and voice, tend to be older, the damage is real. Hopefully it’s only temporary, as music feeds our soul, especially when the world is in chaos like it is now. Let’s hope and pray for a bigger audience turnout next season.
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