By KATIE TAYLOR with contributions by SUSAN HARRIS
When pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout launched into the fourth and final song in Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter’s opening Mozart set at her Friends of Chamber Music Vocal Arts Series recital last week, I thought, “that sounds like Schubert.” With its rolling arpeggios, Mozart’s “An Chloë” irresistibly brough to mind Schubert’s “Das Wandern,” which opens his famous song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. That wasn’t an accident.
This beautifully crafted program began with Mozart, progressed seamlessly into Schubert through a classical lens and ended with Schubert’s romantic side. The effect worked in both directions, revealing intriguing hints of a view forward to early romanticism in late Mozart and showing Schubert’s classical roots with a clarity that was wholly surprising to a listener accustomed to the more barn-burning approach many singers take to his songs.
The program made a side trip midway to listen in on Schubert’s Swedish contemporaries, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad and Franz Berwald, and von Otter’s lyrical art song sets were thoughtfully interwoven with solo turns by Bezuidenhout.
The pairing of singer and accompanist couldn’t have been more perfect. Both artists combined relaxed, spontaneous delivery with meticulous attention to detail and delivery that was never anything less than divinely subtle.
Von Otter is one of those singers who needs no introduction. At 64, she is still singing opera roles, making recordings and performing in concert. Her voice sounds much the same as it did 20 years ago. After having noticed a vocal decline at 50, she put in the hard work to keep her voice sounding fresh. Unlike the majority of other singers at the height of their careers, von Otter still takes voice lessons.
A master class through Friends of Chamber Music the Saturday before the recital revealed von Otter’s tireless work ethic. A group of Portland Opera young artists sang German lieder and received von Otter’s critique. She drilled tenor Aaron Jenkins repeatedly on German diction, had soprano Lauren Yokabaskas sing phrases over and over to improve her musicality and worked to bring baritone Sergio Manzo’s already nuanced interpretation of the text to perfection. Soprano Susan Harris, who was in the audience for the master class, said she was happy to learn the correct pronunciation of the word ‘ich.’ “The middle of the tongue should rise,” she said.
Hailing from South Africa, Bezuidenhout is an adept on not just the modern piano but also its predecessor the fortepiano and the harpsichord. His harpsichord roots can be heard in the flawless precision of his piano playing. He has had a wide-ranging career as a solo artist, accompanist and continuo player. Not surprisingly, his discography is bursting with Mozart.
The Mozart songs that opened the program set the tone for what followed. Von Otter and Bezuidenhout lured the audience in with a taste of sweetness on “Komm lieber Zither” (Come, dear zither, come), then let out the lush, lyrical side of von Otter’s voice with “Als Luise die Brief ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers” (When Luisa Burnt her Unfaithful Lover’s Letters) and wound up with a demonstration of von Otter’s knack for characterization and humor in the highly suggestive “An Chloë” (To Chloë).
The gates to Schubert-land were opened by Bezuidenhout in tender, luminous and inward-looking interpretations of two Schubert pieces for solo piano. Bezuidenhout approached Schubert’s Allegretto in C Minor with great intimacy and an impression of almost conversational spontaneity. I’ve always liked a pianist who makes the instrument talk, and Bezuidenhout is one of these. It’s a beautiful but odd piece, written toward the end of the composer’s life–languid for an allegretto and infused with phrases that have almost the last-call melancholy of good ragtime. Filter this through the sensibility of a skilled fortepiano player and you get something like the perfect soundtrack for the rolling hills of Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Bezuidenhout’s pedal work was nuanced, imbuing the ends of his phrases with an unswerving restraint that was sometimes achingly perfect.
This was followed by Schubert’s Adagio in G Major, which offered an opportunity to hear one of Bezuidenhout’s most notable qualities–a striking ability to oppose the voices of his two hands, so they seem like separate musical beings in conversation with one another. And he looked so relaxed! I don’t think I’ve ever seen another pianist so unlikely to suffer from neck tension.
Von Otter rejoined him for one of the high points of the evening—a performance of Schubert’s “Viola” that managed to transform it into one of my favorite songs, only to lead to disappointment when I came home and listened to it again online. Von Otter herself has a 1997 recording with long-time accompanist Bengt Forsberg. I have to say, 22 years on, she blew that thing straight out of the water.
“Viola” opens with a heartbreaking lullaby plea that returns again and again as the song follows the sad life of an early-blooming violet that dies unknown and unloved just as spring breaks into full flower. The song showed off von Otter’s virtuosity like a bespoke suit. She combined exquisite production with vocal expression in a way that made it seem she was simply speaking to the audience. She wasn’t just singing the song–she was the song.
Bezuidenhout supported von Otter’s interpretation with the breathless care of someone holding a newborn baby. A single held note spoke volumes, handing the piece back to von Otter for her elegiac final repetition of the lullaby. I have never felt so sad for a violet.
The piece resonated through intermission, and by the time the audience came back, they were ready for a palate cleanser. They got it in the form of two sets by Schubert’s Swedish contemporaries, Lindblad and Berwald.
Lindblad has often been called ‘the Swedish Schubert,’ but von Otter described him as “more the Swedish Mendelssohn, with a little Beethoven and Schubert thrown in.” His music made Lindblad prosperous and comfortable in his lifetime. “He was happy to write what was expected of him,” von Otter said.
By contrast, Berwald was antisocial, stubborn, and a determined failure. He passed through numerous unrelated professions, serving as director of a sawmill for a few years before finally finding his true calling as an inventor of orthopedic devices. Little known in his lifetime, he is now renowned, especially for his symphonies. “His songs are awkward, but that’s what I like about them” von Otter said.
Lindblad’s music made great use of von Otter’s effortless pianissimo, particularly in the third piece, “Svanvits sang” (Swan-White’s Song). “En ung flickas morgonbetrakteise” (A maiden’s morning reflections) again showcased her wit and engaging stage presence. It also offered a coloratura turn that may have been the least successful element of the evening, but didn’t affect the overall strength of von Otter’s performance of the song.
As von Otter warned, the songs were not daring. They were pretty and conservative, a joy to listen to but not very innovative. The Berwald songs channeled 19th century taste for stylistic variety. The third song, “En parcourant les doux climats” (In traversing the balmy climates) had a strangely Baroque feature—a da capo repetition that allowed von Otter to display some inventive and appealing ornamentation. This song set offered the first real display of the jaw-dropping ease with which von Otter navigates between her low and middle voices, and the remarkable consistency of her sound production from the top to the very bottom of her voice.
With the second movement of Schubert’s Sonata in E-flat Major, andante molto (the rest of the sonata was not on the program), Bezuidenhout drew back the curtain to reveal a tantalizing taste of Schubert’s romantic side, though carefully scaled to his time and to the parlor venue where much of his work was first heard. The performance threatened to break free of its classical corset–and did, a bit, but remained resolutely early romantic, filled with precise contrasts and Austen-like restraint.
Von Otter returned to the stage for a final set of Schubert songs. “So lasst mich scheinen” (Thus let me seem) was probably the most beautiful performance of the evening. The strange figure of Goethe’s orphan street performer Mignon is always good for pathos, and again von Otter made the most of the opportunity, employing that silky legato and delicious subtlety of expression.
The final piece, “Waldesnacht” (Night in the Forest) drew von Otter and Bezuidenhout’s plot arc to a galloping close. After an evening spent exploring Schubert’s classical roots, however, those roots were still perceptible even in this dramatic piece with its sudden wild modulations. The song might have been written to purposely show the beauty of von Otter’s lower and middle voices, and the easy way she leaps and slides between them. It was possibly the most demanding piece of the evening for both pianist and singer.
After a round of thunderous applause, von Otter and Bezeudenhout returned for an encore, Schubert’s sprightly “An Silvia” (To Silvia), revisiting Schubert in full classical regalia one last time. The concert was the latest entry in Friends of Chamber Music’s Vocal Arts Series, begun in 2006 under the inspired direction of Pat Zagelow.
Katie Taylor is a Portland-based writer, opera singer, director and librettist. An alumna of San Francisco Opera Center, she is the former general director of Opera Theater Oregon.