This was an evening of balmy delight. Summer sunshine, an eager audience, musicians of global renown, and the magnificent setting of the Sheldonian gave us one of the highlights of the season.
Anne Sofie von Otter is one of the world’s leading mezzo- sopranos, and her fortepiano accompanist Kristian Bezuidenhout an exceptional keyboard artist. They were perfectly matched in a sublime programme of Lieder, which included work by Mozart, Schubert and his Swedish romantic contemporaries Lindblad and Berwald. Lieder were alternated with Schubert’s piano works.
Born in Sweden, the daughter of a diplomat, von Otter studied in London and Stockholm before making her debut in 1983 at Basel Opera. Within five years she had debuted at London, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Renowned for one of the richest, most diverse Grammy winning repertoires – including recordings with Elvis Costello, and the songs of Abba - it is Lieder which lends itself exquisitely to her range of musical intelligence, intricate depth and detail.
Opening the concert with four of Mozart’s songs, von Otter’s ability to convey humour and irony perfectly served Mozart’s parodic intent: love is to be wished for – but this much? In Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte von Otter at 63 conveys a young girl’s overwrought emotions, perfectly pastiching an operatic scena.
Playing a copy of an 1822 fortepiano made in Vienna by Conrad Graf, Bezuidenhout gave a sensitive and complex interpretation of Schubert’s haunting Allegretto in C minor, followed by Adagio in G major. As both an accompanist and a soloist, Bezuidenhout made sparkling work of Schubert’s daring harmonic sideslips.
The poignant allegory to crushed innocence, Viola was movingly sung. Perhaps the possibility that Schubert himself was suffering from early symptoms of syphilis gave it an additional melodic power which transcended the sentimentality of von Schober’s lyrics.
Three songs by Schubert’s contemporaries, the Swedish composers Adolf Lindbland, and Franz Berwald, were beautifully articulated – despite von Otter’s reservation that Berwald could be ‘awkward’ at times.
Bezeuidenhout’s piano solo of Schubert’s gorgeous, confessional Sonata in E flat, d568 – a reworking towards increased simplicity – was played with absolute confidence and subtlety.
Schubert contributed the three last songs of the programme: the twinkling Die Sterne, the angelic purity of So last mich scheinen with its intimations of death and the magnificent pantheon to nature, set to von Schlegel’s words Waldesnacht, ended the evening in magnificent reverence.
But not quite. The performers returned with obvious pleasure for three encores. Von Otter’s brief farewell was a four line chorus written by Leonard Bernstein:
‘Life is not good or bad… it is finely woven’.
The night ended perfectly – less is more.