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Music For A While – Baroque Melodies
Benedetto FERRARI (1603 or 1604-1681)

Amanti, io vi so dire [04:52]
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643)

Se l’aura spira [02:32]
Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618)

Dovrò dunque morire? [02:31]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)

Ecco I dolci raggi [02:17], Quel sgardo sdegnosetto [01:58]
Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (c.1580-1651)

La Capona (theorbo solo) [01:27]

Adagiati, Poppea (from "L’incoronazione di Poppea") [03:34]
Barbara STROZZI (1619-1677)

Udite, amanti [07:06]
Bernardo STORACE (mid-17th Century)

Ciaccona (harpsichord solo) [06:13]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)

Saraband with division (harpsichord solo) [01:15], Sweeter than roses [03:15], Dear, pretty youth [02:01], Music for a while [02:51], There’s not a swain [01:30], An Evening Hymn [03:41]

Arpeggiata (theorbo solo) [02:18]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)

In darkness let me dwell [04:26], Can she excuse my wrongs [02:39], Weep you no more, sad fountains [05:24], What if I never speed? [02:17]
Robert JOHNSON (c.1583-1633)

Fantasia (lute solo) [03:41]
Annie Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Jory Vinikour (harpsichord, chamber organ), Jakob Lindberg (theorbo, lute, baroque guitar), Anders Ericson (theorbo)
Recorded at the Sveriges Radio/Berwaldhallen, Stockholm. February 2004

This has to be the greatest baroque/renaissance singing out – or the most awfullest, and I doubt if many listeners will take a middle view. So let me explain.

Not so long ago I was reviewing a reissue of von Otter’s solo recordings, dedicated to baroque repertoire, made in 1983 and now available on Proprius PRCD 9008. I found it interesting that in those days she was adopting the nasal voice production typical of baroque specialists, giving her voice a darker sound than it came to assume later – the sort of style that was later developed by Sara Mingardo.

As we all know, her voice became higher and lighter, gold rather than velvet, allowing her to embrace a wide range of repertoire. If that early baroque record shows what a good baroque singer she could have become (not that she ever turned her back on that repertoire) and her prize-winning Sibelius album (to give one example out of many) or her remarkable Chaminade album show what a fine singer (even a great one) she actually became, I noted with some concern a propos her recent Offenbach recital a tendency to slither around which was to my ears (though not to those of most of my colleagues) unacceptably mannered.

Well, you’d think, she hardly do that sort of thing here. And yet she does. The opening piece by Benedetto Ferrari – which will serve as an entrance test, the faint-hearted can stop here – is subjected to an expressionist gamut of whines and whelps and chesty grunts that would be over-egging the pudding in a cabaret act let alone a baroque recital. Quite honestly, this is one of the most abominable displays of bad taste I have ever heard.

And yet, for some people it may bring the music to life as never before though, for what it’s worth I played this track to a friend who is not much attracted by the baroque but likes later classical music and loves a good cabaret song, and she thought it just as grotesque as I did.

Basically, this style is adopted throughout the Italian part of the recital. There are, to be sure, moments where one can appreciate that von Otter’s swift passage-work is impeccably brilliant and that she now cultivates, in this repertoire, a sort of virginal, vibrato-less tone (though around E and F, presumably the area of the break between her middle and high registers, she finds it difficult not to let some vibrato in, as can be heard in the Strozzi piece). But there is not a single piece that is not affected by further examples of absolutely foul (again, to my ears) slithering.

Purcell’s more straightforwardly vigorous style offers fewer opportunities for this sort of exaggeration though, forewarned, I found a few. It is the Dowland pieces, however, which offer a different, and rather more favourable, slant on von Otter’s current baroque/renaissance manners. Here she offers a very sweet, girlish, apparently "untrained" type of voice production, and maintains this very intimate, pure and pianissimo sound with remarkable control. It is something of a vocal feat, especially for a singer who doesn’t only sing in this way, though after a time it comes to seem unvaried. It also comes, I think, into the category of "microphone singing" since I really can’t imagine that this sound would carry far in a concert hall. Well, you may say, Dowland wasn’t writing for a concert hall, he didn’t even know what one was.

So the English part of the recital is plausible, and the interspersed solo items are neatly done. But as for the Italian part, if von Otter or her collaborators think they have evidence that the music was really sung in this way, then the acceptable but not greatly informative booklet note might have gone into this. Until such proof is given me I shall continue to consider this a grave blot on a distinguished singers career (though coming after that Offenbach, I fear it may be a downhill slide rather than an aberration). And if, listening to the opening item, you think it sounds marvellous, then do listen to something sung by Sara Mingardo as evidence that a strong personality and a truly liberated sense of interpretation is not incompatible with correct vocal manners.

The sound is excellent and original texts are supplied, with English translations of the Italian pieces and German translations of everything.

Christopher Howell

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