A Simple Song
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Bengt Forsberg (organ)
rec. 2016, Sankt Jacobs kyrka, Stockholm, Sweden
Sung texts with English translations enclosed BIS BIS-2327 SACD [69:01]
All her active life as a singer Anne Sofie von Otter has been searching new challenges. Her repertoire as classical singer has spanned from early baroque (Monteverdi) to newly written (Sebastian Fagerlund’s Autumn Sonata), she has sung opera, oratorios and other concert works and been one of the most versatile interpreters of art songs in Nordic repertoire as well as German and French. She has also steered outside the classical field, singing French chansons and Kurt Weill, cooperating with Elvis Costello and jazz composer/pianist Brad Mehldau, performing music by singer/songwriters from the last few decades in the company of the string quartet Brooklyn Riders. There seems no limits for her appetite and she knows what she can do and where her limitations are. The present disc, unpretentiously titled “A Simple Song”, explores various aspects of 20th century vocal music with some retrospection to the previous century as well. Nostalgia, you may call it, nostalgic in a more concrete sense is the fact that the recordings were made in St Jacob Church in central Stockholm, just across the street from The Royal Opera House. It was in this church Anne Sofie von Otter started her singing career as member of the church’s youth choir, later she sang her first solo role in Bach’s St John Passion and it was here she gave one of her first public concerts in 1982, accompanied by Bengt Forsberg, with whom she has regularly appeared ever since. And here, at these recording sessions, he was back at the magnificent Marcussen organ he also played in 1982.
The programme starts in America. The collective title of the disc is borrowed from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. It is a beautiful piece, A Simple Song, and it’s accompanied by electric guitar, played by Anne Sophie von Otter’s son Fabian Fredriksson, flute and harp. Very discreetly the organ also participates. In the following number, I’ve Heard an Organ Talk Sometimes, it is all the more present. The Marcussen instrument doesn’t exactly talk, it roars and the sound is great. In surround sound it must be even more impressive. The short song, a setting of Emily Dickinson, is truly magnificent, and in spite of the outburst of organ harmonies the voice can still be heard. The music of Charles Ives can sometimes be rather knotty. Here the title tells us that the composer is in a softer mood. Serenity is a wonderful song.
We then move over to the German language repertoire, and some readers will no doubt raise an eyebrow before the prospect of hearing Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs with organ accompaniment. The idea is not without precedence, however. Swedish contralto Maria Forsström recorded a full Mahler programme with organ some years ago and it worked excellently. Es sungen drei Engel becomes truly mighty in this version. By all means von Otter has to raise the volume considerably which results in a widening of vibrato, but she never goes over the top and produces a wobble. She is far too conscious and tasteful for that. Urlicht also exists in an orchestral version, as the fourth movement of Symphony no. 2. This restrained and very slow song about the human soul’s longing to God, leads in the symphony over to the enormous powerful outbreak of the finale. Here, isolated from the symphonic context, the music is just as gripping. The two Strauss songs are also available in orchestral versions, and in Morgen Nils-Erik Sparf plays the violin solo from the orchestral arrangement, backed up by Margareta Nilsson’s sensitive harp accompaniment. In both songs Anne Sophie von Otter’s great artistry is very much in the foreground.
Estonian Arvo Pärt’s beautiful minimalist setting of Robert Burns’s My Heart is in the Highlands, leads over to a French section, beginning with the wonderful Pie Jesu from Duruflé’s Requiem, one of the finest latter day settings of the mass. Marie McLeod’s cello gives added solace. Very early Messiaen comes next: three songs composed when he was 22 and still a student for Paul Dukas. Moreover two of the texts are by the composer. Pourquoi? is particularly attractive, while in La fiancée perdue the greatness of the organ is again featured. Francis Poulenc has often stood out as something of a joker, but he had a serious vein as well. His setting of Charles d’Orléans’s (1394 – 1465) Priez pour paix (Prayer for peace) is a deeply moving song, not inappropriate in our time. With the discreet organ accompaniment it becomes even more important.
Frank Martin was Swiss but lived most of his life in the Netherlands. He was deeply religious, and Agnus Dei from his Requiem – a late work, composed in 1971-72, a couple of years before his demise – is dark, as is most of his compositions. Anne Sophie von Otter sings marvellously, heartfelt, softly, inwardly. Arvo Pärt, one of the most personal voices of the last few decades and his Es sang vor langen Jahren (1985) with accompaniment of violin and viola is magical. This is Pärt, nothing else! And the accompaniment is so typical Pärtian.
Franz Liszt was a devoted organ player, which is little known. The long organ introduction gives scope for Bengt Forsberg’s accomplished playing. He is famous for his pianism, but the organ was his first instrument. Here he almost – but not quite – drenches von Otter in a magnificent fortissimo. The final number, a far cry from Liszt’s pious prayer but still in the same realm of Christianity, is introduced by a riveting organ prelude. Every knows Climb ev’ry mountain but few have heard it performed with such conviction, and Bengt Forsberg gets the next last word with a magisterial organ postlude, before Anne Sofie von Otter returns with a sensitive final stanza of this all-embracing song. I couldn’t dream of a better finale to this wholly fascinating recital!
The programme was recorded in surround sound SACD and is magnificent in the two-channel version I have listened to. Those with full SACD equipment will probably get an even more vivid experience. A disc for overwhelming sonic and musical rapture.
Contents Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990)
1. A Simple Song from Mass (1971) [4:30] Aaron COPLAND (1900 – 1990)
2. I’ve heard an organ talk sometimes [2:05] Charles IVES (1874 – 1954)
3. Serenity [2:27] Gustav MAHLER (1860 – 1911)
4. Es sungen drei Engel [4:08]
5. Urlicht [5:03] Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
6. Traum durch die Dämmerung [2:45]
7. Morgen [4:04] Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
8. My Heart’s in the Highlands (2000) [7:00] Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902 – 1986)
9. Pie Jesu from Requiem [3:39] Olivier MESSIAEN (1908 – 1992)
Trois mélodies (1930) [6:28]
10. Pourquoi? [2:01]
11. Le sourire [1:42]
12. La fiancée perdue [2:41] Francis POULENC (1899 – 1963)
13. Priez pour paix [2:02] Frank MARTIN (1890 – 1974)
14. Agnus Dei from Requiem [5:50] Arvo PÄRT
15. Es sang vor langen Jahren (1985) [4:48] Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886)
16. Ave Maria III (Sposalizio), S.60 [7:26] Richard RODGERS (1902 – 1979)
17. Climb ev’ry mountain from The Sound of Music [4:33]
Fabian Fredriksson (electric guitar), Sharon Bezaly (flute), Margareta Nilsson (harp) (1); Nils Erik Sparf (violin), Margareta Nilsson (harp) (7); Marie McLeod (cello) (9); Nils Erik Sparf (violin), Ellen Nisbeth (viola) (15)
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