Great singer, and audience, sold short at hybrid festival concert

New Zealand Festival 2018

Anne Sophie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey

Schubert: Overture to Rosamunde
Lieder: Der Vollmond strahlt (one of the songs from the incidental music for the play Rosamunde)
Die Forelle (orch. Britten)
Gretchen am Spinnrade (orch. Reger)
Im Abendrot (orch. Reger)
An Sylvia (orch. Anon.)
Erlkönig (orch. Reger)
and her encore: Nacht und Träume

Zemlinksy: Die Seejungfrau – orchestral fantasy

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 15 March 2018, 7:30 pm

I’ll see if I can find space later on to mention the few good things about this concert, apart from the fact that the great Anne Sophie von Otter actually came here and sang for a while.

The Programme
First, let’s see what we could have expected. The first statement in the notice of her recital in the festival season brochure wrote: “Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter is one of the titans of grand opera and French chanson”. And the very abbreviated profile mentioned singing at two famous opera houses, sharing the stage “with the world’s greats”. And the Wellington programme was to “include personal favourites from Schubert lieder and more” (my underlining).

But behold! No opera or French chanson; and certainly, not “more”!

Anyone familiar with the international opera scene and classical music in general knows Von Otter’s wide range in classical vocal music as well as various kinds of folk and tastefully chosen popular music. Since she was the only artist mentioned in the advertising, apart from the orchestra and conductor, it was reasonable to assume that she would dominate the programme with several brackets of opera arias and art songs and perhaps a few European popular songs.

Characteristically, such a programme is fleshed out with three or four orchestral pieces, perhaps an opera overture, an intermezzo, a shortish symphonic poem. But the second half was filled by an unfamiliar symphonic work by Zemlinsky, which turned out to be well worth hearing but seemed an odd accompaniment for a solo vocal recital.

A few days before, Von Otter had sung an excellent programme at the Adelaide Festival, which has, from the very beginning, been a key associate of our festival, in its use of major international artists. There, she had sung, with piano accompaniment, just the sort of programme I might have was expected: innovative, stimulating, appropriate festival fare, doing full justice to both herself and a reasonably knowledgeable audience.

Lieder with orchestra?
Then there’s the question of singing Schubert with an orchestra. Yes, she had done that before, winning a Grammy Award in 1997 for her recording of Schubert Lieder with Orchestra with Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The impact of performances with orchestra on record is very different from those in a big concert hall, where the problems of balance and atmosphere are difficult. Many such arrangements exist and were popular especially in earlier times: seen as a way of breaking down barriers for people who might be afraid of a concert entirely from a singer and piano accompanist. That was the reason offered here, in the belief that there was no audience for solo vocal recitals, a fiction broadcast by some music promoters here too; which I have always refused to believe.

If she had come here with Bengt Forsberg, her long-standing accompanist, they would have made a tremendous impact. Erlkönig would have set the audience by the ears with its miraculously dramatic piano accompaniment; it and scores of other wonderful Lieder and French mélodies would immediately have created a huge audience for classical song.

Earlier festivals had some wonderful solo voice concerts, one of the most memorable for me being from tenor Peter Schreier in 1990 or 92 in a packed Town Hall.

The concert opened with the overture to the unsuccessful play, Rosamunde, for which Schubert wrote a variety of incidental music; it was a nice idea, and conductor Benjamin Northey led the orchestra through it carefully – a very slow opening – with clarity and energy supporting its sparkling Rossini character.

And the first song was from the Rosamunde music: a simple, unaffected melody to typically sentimental words: Der Vollmond strahl, naturally orchestrated as part of the orchestral incidental music. (Rather like Bizet’s incidental music for Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne, the music was immediately popular as the play bombed.) The audience had clapped unrestrainedly after the Rosamunde song, persisting even in the absence of any acknowledgement by singer and conductor; and the audience failed to read their clear messages after each subsequent song. Even if unfamiliar with the etiquette, one might have thought they’d have read the musicians’ expressionless wait between the songs. The determination to clap persisted later between movements of the Zemlinsky piece.

Then came five genuine Lieder. Die Forelle written aged about 19, was sung first; it was orchestrated imaginatively by Britten, more interestingly than the three by Reger; I was not altogether captivated by its singular pathos and wit of words and music. Gretchen am spinnrade followed, Schubert’s second published, in 1813 when he was 16, after Erlkonig; both are considered miracles in their musical invention and extraordinarily acute emotion expression. The genius of Gretchen was not much obscured by the orchestration and the singing of the first two songs offered the singer wonderful opportunity to let her undimmed vocal gifts be heard, finding the unsettled innocence of Goethe’s heroine, though one has heard more passionate outbursts, of phrases like ‘…und ach! Sein Kuss!’

Im Abendrot is a slightly less familiar song, and since its piano accompaniment is a little less embedded in the mind, Reger’s orchestration was tolerable, and the performance evoked its oddly religious character well.  An Sylvia is a very old favourite. It was among my parents’ collection of 10” 78s; not much played by them, but it became part of my aural furniture as a child. Even though the orchestra, in the anonymous arrangement, was pared down, the chomping cellos and basses did sound odd.

And finally Erlkönig; Here was a disappointment, not only the absence of the irreplaceable piano part, but also, I fear, not a male voice that for me at least has become such an essential character in the story, perhaps inadmissibly these days. The awakening of the father’s terror with ‘Der Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind…’ (the translations of these marvellous words were pathetic) just passed by…

The best song of all was the encore: Nacht und Träume, a late-ish song from around 1825, where I actually enjoyed the horn’s opening phrases followed by other orchestral felicities that, because it’s a song whose piano part has not taken root in my head so much; though I love it. It was beautiful.

Die Seejungfrau
Introducing Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau, in the second half the conductor congratulated those in the hall for staying (many had left in the interval, compensated by a great increase in orchestral forces with quadruple, and more, winds!). And he talked about the link between this and the NZSO’s earlier festival venture into Star Wars, the music by John Williams, and his film music predecessors Bernard Herrmann and Korngold, to Zemlinsky who taught Korngold in Vienna. And he filled in possible gaps in musical knowledge noting the loss of his first wife, Alma Schindler to Gustav Mahler, who in turn lost her to Walter Gropius. Northey noted another detail that might well have been mentioned in the programme note, the orchestra’s recording of the work, under James Judd, for Naxos.

Much as I was uncertain about how the Zemlinsky, which I had failed to familiarise myself with, would sit in this context (on the face of it, strangely ill-assorted), I was quickly won over by its Strauss-era character (its opening might have suggested the beginnings of Tod und Verklärung or Also sprach Zarathustra) as well as its own character that in fact is some distance from Strauss. The performance had a vivid quality that was immediately charming, colourful, warmly lyrical. The work felt coherently structured in spite of the composer refraining from calling it a symphony or even a symphonic poem. The second movement (unnamed) was more light-hearted and mercurial. I didn’t attempt to create from the music images of mermaids and the ocean or other details of Hans Andersen’s tale. And the third movement became more reflective and elegiac, allowing anyone so-disposed to conjure the mermaid’s sad fate.

It was a most accomplished performance, Northey showing himself as fully capable of extracting the emotional qualities, the rich orchestral fabric, the dynamic and rhythmic pulses that brought it convincingly to life. At the end, the enthusiastic applause here was indeed in the right place.

As I load this on Monday morning, I see an excellent, pertinent letter on the programme from Deryn and David Groves in The Dominion Post.

One thought on “Great singer, and audience, sold short at hybrid festival concert

  1. Roger Neill says:

    As you say, what an odd programme, especially the second half. I’d very much like to hear the Zemlinsky, but not in that context! If Nellie Melba thought she was giving short measure, she would sing, amongst much else, the Mad Scene from Lucia as one of several encores, and end by having a piano pushed on stage and accompanying herself in ‘Home Sweet Home’.

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