Anne Sofie von Otter, Wigmore Hall

After the exuberant, high-spirited performance of Magdelena Kožen· 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 AlarcÛn 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,
AlarcÛn 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 puÚ 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.

‘SÌ dolce Ë’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 L¸nzen 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 Ë 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 AlarcÛn’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 MÈdÈe.
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

image_description=Anne Sofie von Otter [Photo by Mats B‰cker]
product_title=Anne Sofie von Otter, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Anne Sofie von Otter. mezzo-soprano. Cappella Mediterranea. Leonardo Garcia AlarcÛn: director, harpsichord, keyboard. Gustavo Gargiulo, cornet; Boris Begelman, violin; StÈphnie de Failly, violin; Andrea De Carlo, viola da gamba; Daniel Zapico, theorbo. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday, 21 April 2011.
product_id=Above: Anne Sofie von Otter [Photo by Mats B‰cker]