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Anne Sofie von Otter: Love Songs and Berlioz
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Brad Mehldau (piano)
Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
rec. 2010/11
NAĎVE NC 40035 [3 CDs: 77:00 + 30:45 + 49:15]

The Berlioz disc was issued some three years ago and was very favourably reviewed here at MusicWeb International by my colleague John Quinn. Well, here it is again as part of the Naïve 15th Anniversary Limited Edition, in harness with a double album with Anne Sofie von Otter singing what could be labelled as 'light music'. It's offered at a very favourable price and those who missed it the first time around should snap it up without delay.

‘But I have half a dozen Harold en Italie including the unbeatable Colin Davis on Philips’, I hear someone grunting. I have the Davis too, bought the LP way back in the mid-1970s, and it is a great recording, but this Minkowski reading is something quite different. I don’t say it is necessarily better than Davis, but it is very good and offers a quite new sound picture, being played on period instruments. The textures become leaner and more transparent - in several places there is a feeling of chamber music – and even though Berlioz probably wanted a beefier sound this transparency is mostly all gain. It also means that the solo viola, admirably played with velvety tone by Antoine Tamestit, never runs the risk of being submerged, which can often happen.

The presentation of the theme after circa three minutes in the first movement is so beautifully warm with the glittering harp of Aurélie Saraf sharing the limelight with the viola. Elsewhere one can wholeheartedly enjoy the well balanced woodwind sonorities. The strings lend a somewhat rustic character and the brass, though not lacking in bite, is youthfully lean. In the more punchy music Minkowski draws magnificent playing from his musicians, powerful but balanced. This is energetic, distinctive playing of the highest order.

Colin Davis’s recording will never be redundant but Minkowski’s is not just another Harold. It is a valuable contrast to the established ‘modern’ versions and should be an ear-opener with its distinctive ‘old’ sound.

This is also an asset in the other works on the disc. Anne Sofie von Otter recorded Les Nuits d’Été more than fifteen years earlier for DG. Inevitably the voice has lost something of its lustre and the vibrato is in places somewhat wider. That said, it's still classy and her readings are even more insightful than before. Anne Sofie von Otter’s hallmark has always been her care over the texts and ability to adjust the vocal colours to suit the moods of the songs. In many ways she reminds me of her great predecessor Janet Baker. Like her she never sings a dull phrase and like her she is marvellous at shading the dynamics. Villanelle is light and airy – the period orchestra also contributes to this – and in Le Spčctre de la rose she sings this typical Berlioz melody with great warmth. The last line of the second stanza, Et j’arrive du Paradis, is sung almost ecstatically in an intense crescendo, while the third and last stanza is so restrained with the closing lines inward and half whispered. The dark lament Sur les Lagunes opens with plaintive tone – the text says Ma belle amie est morte (My lovely companion is dead) – but is also defiant. This is glorious singing but with so much expression. The closing song L’Ile inconnue is truly sensual. Just listen to the concluding lines Oů voulez-vous aller? / La brise va souffier. (Where would you like to go? / The breeze is about to blow).
Le roi de Thulé from La Damnation de Faust is a worthy finale to this Berlioz programme, where the two soloists von Otter and Tamestit join forces. This magnificent aria also brings Janet Baker to mind, both mezzos are so sensitive while both have their own personality. Janet Baker and Régine Crespin have long been my two favourite Berlioz singers, joined rather recently by Véronique Gens. Anne Sofie von Otter is without doubt worthy to stand in their company.

This disc is a must for the Berlioz collector and it is still available separately at full price. However, browse the contents of the double album below and read my comments to find out whether it would be a good idea to get the versatile von Otter in repertoire that is quite different.
Anne Sofie von Otter first came into the limelight as a baroque singer and has appeared in a great number of recordings of Bach, Handel, Purcell and Monteverdi. Beyond that she has broadened her repertoire magnificently and in opera alone has been seen and heard in Gluck, Mozart, Berlioz, Massenet, Bizet, Richard Strauss and Bartók as well as singing German lieder, French melodies, Scandinavian songs. She has also cooperated in cross-over repertoire with Elvis Costello and others. It may have been with some trepidation that she went into a project with jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau, resulting in concerts in Carnegie Hall in New York and London’s Wigmore Hall. The seven songs on the first disc were commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the last two were a joint commission by Carnegie Hall, KölnMusik and Wigmore Hall.

Brad Mehldau is an interesting improviser and I suppose most of the accompaniments are improvised or at least head arrangements. Very often the piano part is orchestral with thick chords and a lot of notes. Though not necessarily too many as Emperor Joseph II suggested to Mozart – at least as related in the film Amadeus. “There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required. Neither more nor less.” I believe Brad Mehldau could respond likewise. In the dreamy Twilight and the inward Because the accompaniment is more sparse and the Emperor would probably have liked them better. The intensity and forward movement is never in question and the blues-like Child, Child with its meaty chords is certainly impressive. Over these accompaniments, or shall we say “together with” von Otter weaves long heavenly cantilenas. She is not an improviser but she has the feel for the rhythms. There is a bluesy timbre in her voice and she sings with her usual care over nuance and expression of the lyrics, while never sounding like an opera singer who is trying to be folksy. I liked the songs a lot though at the same time feeling a certain sameness. Maybe closer acquaintance will make them open up. Twilight did more readily than the others.

Brad Mehldau is the accompanist also on the second disc, where Anne Sofie von Otter has picked some favourites. It is obvious that she likes these songs. The non-classical approach is again in evidence and she has a special feel for the French. Leo Ferré’s Avec le temps is a direct hit. Barbara, with whom I was not familiar, wrote lovely melodies and I fell in love with Joni Mitchell. Richard Rodgers wrote Something good for the film soundtrack of Sound of Music as a replacement for An ordinary couple. A stunning song. My wife who knows that musical inside out preferred Julie Andrews but I thought von Otter was superb too. Here as well as in several of the other songs, Mehldau delivers outstanding interludes that are masterpieces in themselves, none more so than the one in Legrand’s Chanson de Maxence. It is nice to have included two Swedish songs, made famous by von Otter’s late lamented compatriot Monica Zetterlund. The first is a new text by the brilliant Beppe Wolgers to Fred Ahlert’s Walking my Baby Back Home, here a loving portrait of Stockholm. The second was featured as the title song of a Swedish film, Docking the Boat, about a group of friends arriving by motor-boat at a small island in the archipelago to party, but they encounter serious problems in getting ashore. This is another song where von Otter shows her feeling for jazzy rhythms. There are in fact goodies a-plenty on this disc which concludes with a fine version of Lennon/McCartney’s Blackbird. Mehldau is again at his best in the interlude and then in a lovely Some Other Time from On the Town.
A great cross-over album paired with some outstanding Berlioz. Convinced that this is a good buy? I certainly am.

Göran Forsling

Harold en Italie, Op. 16 [39:10]
Les Nuits d’Été, Op. 7 [28:31]
Le Roi de Thulé (La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24) [5:17]
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo); Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
rec. April 2011, Opéra Royal de Versailles, France
French texts, English and German translations included
Originally issued as V5266 [77:00]

CD 2 & 3
Brad MEHLDAU (b. 1970)
Love Songs
1. It may not always be so [5:43]
2. We Met at the End of the Party [4:02]
3. Child, Child [2:19]
4. Twilight [2:51]
5. Because [4:39]
6. Dreams [5:30]
7. Did You Never Know? [5:41]
Léo FERRÉ (1916 – 1993)
1. Avec le temps [4:14]
Barbara (pseud. for Monique Andrée SERF) (1930 – 1997)
2. Pierre [4:03]
Joni MITCHELL (b. 1943)
3. Marcie [3:57]
Richard RODGERS (1902 – 1979)
4. Something Good [3:22]
Michel LEGRAND (b. 1932)
5. Chanson de Maxence from Les Demoiselles de Rochefort [5:14]
Jacques BREL (1929 – 1978)
6. Chanson des vieux amants [4:11]
Fred E. AHLERT (1892 – 1953)
7. Sakta vi gĺ genom stan (Walking my Baby Back Home) [2:39]
Lars FÄRNLÖF (1942 – 1994)
8. Att angöra en brygga [2:42]
9. Dis, quand reviendras-tu? [4:12]
10. What Are You Doing the Rest of your Life? from The Happy Ending [3:12]
Bob TELSON (b. 1949)
11. Calling You, from Bagdad Café [4:08]
John LENNON (1940 - 1980) / Paul McCARTNEY (b. 1942)
12. Blackbird [2:26]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990)
13. Some Other Time, from On the Town [4:03]
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo), Brad Mehldau (piano)
rec. June 2010, Berwald Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden
Sung texts enclosed but no translations
Originally issued as V5241 [30:45 + 49:15]