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Anne Sofie von Otter [Photo by Mats Bäcker]
29 Apr 2011

Anne Sofie von Otter, Wigmore Hall

For the second time in a matter of just a few weeks, the Wigmore Hall audience were treated to an evening of seventeenth-century song and dance.

Anne Sofie von Otter, Wigmore Hall

Anne Sofie von Otter. mezzo-soprano. Cappella Mediterranea. Leonardo Garcia Alarcón: director, harpsichord, keyboard. Gustavo Gargiulo, cornet; Boris Begelman, violin; Stéphnie de Failly, violin; Andrea De Carlo, viola da gamba; Daniel Zapico, theorbo. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday, 21 April 2011.

Above: Anne Sofie von Otter [Photo by Mats Bäcker]


After the exuberant, high-spirited performance of Magdelena Kožená and Private Musicke in March, Anne Sofie von Otter, accompanied by Cappella Mediterranea, presented a more restrained account, delivering a powerful, controlled expression of love and grief.

We began with a sequence of numbers from Monteverdi’s tale of faithful endurance, Il ritorno d’Ulisse. The dark, resonant bass registers of the opening Sinfonia, as the members of the Cappella, led by Leonardo Garcia Alarcón at the organ, skilfully improvised on what the score presents as a simple minor chord, aptly conveying Penelope’s distress and anguish as she waits languidly for the return of the eponymous hero. Von Otter remained seated at the commencement of ‘Di misera regina’ (‘The queen’s misery’), her grief subdued, the soft-focused, flexible melodic line revealing her weariness and quiet despair. Rising to stand for the more declamatory text, as the queen angrily accuses Ulisse of neglect, even betrayal, von Otter injected a bitterness into the recitative, complemented by the astringent tone of Gustavo Gargiulo’s cornett. The heavy, portentous organ suggested that Penelope may be right in her fears that her fate shall ‘never alter’; here, and throughout the recital, Alarcón was eager to give every textual nuance a musical shade, although I found the organ timbre a little too grave and sombre, and welcomed the light fleetness of the final section, ‘Torna il tranquillo al mare’ (‘Calm returns the sea’) during which the organ was silent.

Von Otter’s Italian was crystal clear, but the Camerata proved just as adept at communicating textual meaning. For, the sequence concluded with an instrumental interpretation of the returning sailors’ Act 1 song, in which they celebrate man’s power and freedom in the face of the indifference of the gods. The players’ ornaments and figurations responded expertly to the text, conveying energy and swiftness, driving forward through an exciting sequence of rising modulations.

In Barbara Strozzi’s ‘Che si può fare’ (‘What can one do’), von Otter was once again surprisingly restrained, remaining seated for this monumental lament, but she demonstrated an effortlessly lyrical beauty in the tender melismas, delicately and poignantly contrasting with some startling harmonic dissonances. A deeply intense sentiment was conveyed, enhanced by a spirited dialogue between the two violins and the marvellous realisation – expressive, intricate but never overwhelming – of the repeating ground bass by theorbo player, Daniel Zapico.

‘Sí dolce è’l tormento’ (‘So sweet is the anguish’) by Monteverdi followed, revealing the rich, burnished quality of von Otter’s lower range. She ventured a daringly hushed pianissimo and rubato in the closing lines, conveying the paradoxical ‘sweetness’ of her anguish: ‘Su, su prendi arco e faretra,/ Casto amore, e ‘l cor mi spetra’ (‘quickly, take your bow and quiver,/ chaste love, and melt my heart’).

Francesco Provenzale was one of the leading figures in the musical life of Naples during the seventeenth century. ‘Squarciato appena havea’, conventionally attributed to him, is a lament-cantata in the Roman style with seven popular songs breaking in at unusual points in the sequence of sections in a recitative style. It is a satire of Luigi Rossi’s famous cantata, ‘Un ferito cavaliero’, which tells the story of the death of Gustavus Aldophus, husband of Queen Christina of Sweden in Lünzen in 1632. The Queen seems to die at the end of each strophe, and the purpose of inserting popular songs which interrupt the lamenting recitative, seems to be to create paradoxical contrast; for the songs are children’s ditties and lullabies, well-known repertory for voice and guitar from the seventeenth-century. Von Otter relished the ironies, exaggerating the emotions – at times introducing a rough grain to her voice to contrast with more lyrical outbursts, elsewhere emphasising the remarkable chromatic inflections. Her rhetoricism and theatricality was complemented by the musicians, a melodramatic organ tremolo underpinning the Queen’s grief-stricken exclamation, ‘Il mio Gustavo è morto?’ (‘Is my Gustavus dead?’). Zapico’s ornamentation of the phrase, ‘Onde morta ed esangue la Regina’ (‘When the Queen is dead and lifeless’) was masterful, evoking a remarkable still languor. Von Otter even turned instrumentalist herself, shaking and striking a tambourine, stamping and clapping energetically to the sprung, syncopated rhythms.

While there was no doubting the sincerity of the musicians, and their delight in the material, or Von Otter’s expressive involvement, the first half of this recital did not quite tap the spirit of joie de vivre and impassioned emotion that these songs embody. She certainly inhabited the dramatic personae of the lyrics, but von Otter did not seem entirely at ease. Despite the swaying and clapping, a certain sense of freedom, even recklessness, which is elemental in these songs was absent – her invitation to the audience to join her in her percussive accompaniment to the final song was not heeded. In the instrumental numbers, von Otter stayed seated centre-stage, the focus of the audience’s eye, and perhaps this inhibited the musical brio of the performers. At times Alarcón’s vigorous direction of the ensemble seemed a little too effortful. Moreover, even allowing for the instability of these authentic instruments, there was an awful lot of tuning and re-tuning, at the start of each half of the recital, and between numbers, and this (together with an extremely long interval) hindered the creation of musical momentum and over-arching dramatic shape.

In the second half we moved gradually from Italy, through France, to England. Over the same chaconne bass previously heard in Strozzi’s aria, the instrumentalists interpreted the text of ‘Mio ben, teco il tomento’ (‘My beloved’) by Rossi, which led into Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s ‘Quel prix de mon amour’ from Médée. This is a beautiful account of the pain wrought by infidelity, and von Otter expertly conveyed Medea’s anguish, exploiting the poignant cadential appoggiaturas and fluctuating tempo to powerful expressive effect.

Some superb cornett and violin playing in an instrumental rendering of Ariel’s ‘Dry those eyes’ from The Tempest, by John Weldon, was followed by the vocal flourishes of Henry Purcell’s short recitative ‘Hark! how all things’ (from The Fairy Queen) and the diverse colours, textures and tempi of ‘From silent shades’, in which the distracted snatches of the songs of ‘Bess of Bedlam’ are presented in a mixture of popular and classical idioms. As in Provenzale’s cantata, von Otter enjoyed the dramatic and unconventional aspects of this song, playfully delivering the occasionally unaccompanied text: the juxtaposition of the painful chromaticism of Bess’s self-pity, ‘Cold and hungry am I grown’, with a headlong, joyful carelessness, ‘Ambrosia will I feed upon’, forcefully conveyed the protagonist’s instability and insanity.

Two arias by Handel, separated by an instrumental passacaglia, brought the recital to a close. In ‘Where’er you walk’ from Semele and ‘Ogni vento’ from Agrippina, von Otter showed her mastery of the opera seria idiom, wonderfully shaping the melodic line during the first statement of the text, subtly ornamenting and elaborating on its return. The audience response was ecstatic. But, despite the unquestionable technical and musical talents on display, I felt that at times during the evening the performance lacked the natural exuberance and unrestrained liberty that this music requires and inspires.

Claire Seymour

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