In live performance, von Otter's voice is slightly husky and surprisingly unfocused, her chestnut-colored tones somewhat breathy. She sounds different -- and better -- in the recording studio, where the microphone helps to focus her voice. And in her many recordings -- which range from the works of Korngold to Elvis Costello -- she somehow achieves an intimacy that, in recital, eludes her.
Interpretively, von Otter is not a singer that goes for the Big Statement. She is essentially a quiet singer, still in voice and manner -- yet too self-contained to be mesmerizing. If a performance style is understated, it has to be beguiling as well, but there is a wintry, introspective quality about this singer's work. Because of this, the audience isn't carried into her world at all -- or that of the composer's.
Her program choices at Spivey Hall didn't help. Noted for her eclecticism, she opted for a first half of all-Scandinavian works that were unfamiliar to the audience. Accompanist Bengt Forsberg's remarkable tone coloring gave another dimension to these songs by Algot Haquinius, Tor Aulin, Ture Rangström, and Gösta Nystroem, but their haunting, chilly aloofness was underplayed -- and undersold -- by von Otter, rendering them remote to the listener.
When she occasionally let loose, her voice developed a full-bodied, earthy quality. But listening to her too-correctly covered chest tones and her cautious dynamics, one got a strong feeling that she was saving her voice. On the other hand, Bengt Forsberg is one of those wonderful pianists who extracts every tone and color, deeply, from the keyboard. His passion proved a good foil to von Otter's enigmatic reserve.
At first, one wanted to view von Otter as idiomatic rather than charismatic. But soon, everything started to sound the same. Her Schubert set sounded just like her Scandinavian set. She did attack the overly performed "An Sylvia" with some spirit -- and a sense of irony -- but the other songs fell flat.
By contrast, the second half was oversold. In an effort to break the mood, the singer tried too hard, and even became coy -- an interpretive ploy that is invariably fatal to a recitalist.
One hoped for better things from the songs by Cecile Chaminade -- an obscure, late 19th-century French composer -- but after the first few, one was reminded that sometimes there is a reason for obscurity.
The only song with any depth, "Viens, Mon Bien Aime" was delivered with a semblance of passion, but for the most part these works, which should have been charming salon bon-bons, were fairly forgettable musical time-wasters.
The Kurt Weill songs selected were woefully out of context. Why do lyric concert singers all want to sing this composer, whose marvelous, idiosyncratic style needs the earthy, sprecht-stimme style of the Berlin cabarets? Some of Weill's Broadway songs do work for the lyric voice, but his Berlin songs never, never do -- and perversely, these are the ones the opera singers all want to record. Von Otter sounded like just that -- an opera singer singing Kurt Weill. Yet oddly enough, the best interpretive performance in the entire program was "September Song," a piece that's really easy to louse up. Her simple, direct manner lent itself to this musical gem of emotional detachment.
Her encore pieces, of which there were many, included a Carmen "Seguidilla" that sounded as if Schubert had written it. Yet, in spite of all, one was keenly aware of a high level of artistic attention. Interpretations were, for the most part, well-thought-out. Von Otter certainly didn't engage her audience, but she commanded a certain respect from them nonetheless.
Given her stature as an artist, it's a pity that, perhaps because of her too-conscientious efforts and serious approach, she just misses having that endearing quality of the best recitalists. As my companion said when we were leaving the hall, "I don't know when I last heard such an excess of good taste."
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