A Beacon of Civilization


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Anne Sofie von Otter in recital with Emanuel Ax†

Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo-soprano, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall, which is not unusual. What is unusual is that she was accompanied by a famous concert pianist, Emanuel Ax. They did a program that was all-Brahms, almost. Von Otter included one song by Tor Aulin, a Swedish composer from the late 19th century, and the early 20th. She likes to tip her hat to her native country. Von Otter and Ax also performed a new work by Nico Muhly, the American composer. †

Otherwise, it was Brahms, including some solo piano pieces. Von Otter sat discreetly behind the piano while Ax played. We heard four piano pieces and about 20 songs. Many of these songs were sad, of course. Last month, I interviewed Christa Ludwig, the great German mezzo-soprano (born in 1928). She spoke of her love for these sad Brahms songs for low voice. Once, her brother-in-law, an American, said to her, "Christa, can't you put one happy song on your program, just for me?"


Like Ludwig, von Otter is a great singer and a great singing musician. She is tasteful, smart, cosmopolitan, poised. She is a rare combination of education and innate musicality. In this latest recital, she was secure in every sense. She knew how she wanted to sing, and she had the technique to follow through on it. She sang in very clear German, although German that was never over-enunciated. In singing a song, she always told a story. Ludwig told students in a master class, "A song is an opera in one minute."


In Brahms's "Sommerabend," von Otter was gentle, exquisite, like the song. In "Stšndchen," she did some marvelous caressing?caressing of caressable notes and words. Sometimes, she was perhaps too subdued in a song. (In "Trennung," for example.) But she unquestionably knows how to swing. She has long favored American jazz. And in Brahms's Zigeunerlieder, the Gypsy songs, she swung.


I will now ask the terrible question, "How is she aging?" (Von Otter is nearing 60.) There is less voice than there once was. But she still has plenty, and there is no wobble or other serious sign of wear. Moreover, she does not try to compensate for a reduction in sound with hamminess, or overinterpretation, which is a temptation to singers.


The pair gave us two encores, both by Brahms, of course. I thought for sure they'd bid goodnight with the lullaby, "Guten Abend, gute Nacht." But von Otter sang a wonderfully jokey song from the Deutsche Volkslieder, and that was it. I will say again what I have said over the years, and decades: Anne Sofie von Otter is no less than a beacon of civilization.


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