Alice Tully Hall
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano, Four Lieder, Four Songs to Texts of William Shakespeare, from Songs of Farewell, Piano Quintet
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Todd Phillips, Julie Rosenfeld (violins), Paul Neubauer (viola), Mats Lidstroem (cello), Bengt Forsberg (piano)
So many concerts are cold, formal affairs, bound by tradition to create an unbridgeable gap between performers and audience which only the most brilliant music can eradicate. At The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center last night the feeling was rather that of making music in the home, an intimate setting reinforced by the casual dress of the performers and their total, ego-less commitment to sharing the joys of this problematic Viennese composer. To further create the feeling of the Schubertiade two works were presented that include themes from songs of their composer, with the representative airs also performed on the same program. Korngold is the ideal composer for this approach as he falls into the lighter category but consistently exhibits flashes of the unfulfilled promise which so delighted Mahler, Schoenberg and Strauss.
Paul Wittgenstein was a minor performer from a major family who had a disproportionate influence on the music of the first half of this century. Losing his right arm in the war, he commissioned piano music for the left hand from such as Strauss, Reger, Schmidt, Britten and of course Prokofieff and Ravel. Korngold wrote two works for Wittgenstein, a concerto and this interesting Suite. The piece begins quite like the Ravel, with ominous rapid chords and an elongated solo for piano. The most striking movements are the grotesque waltz, the totentanz and the movement simply entitled Lied which presents the beautiful melody Was du mir bist with no embellishments. The playing was flawless and remarkably sounding like one musician rather than five.
In the early 1990's I hosted a radio program wherein I introduced my listeners to a young singer named Anne Sofie von Otter, whose intimate performance of Gullebarn's Lullabies by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger elicited several phone calls of praise and curiosity. In fact this heartfelt interpretation became a highlight (in its CD version) whenever I attempted to raise money for my station. I have consistently been impressed by Ms. von Otter's musicianship, over and above considerations of talent or intellectualism (both of which are of an amazingly high quality). After a spoken introduction delivered in a conversational manner which fit the relaxed mood of this evening, she sang four songs accompanied by her musical mentor Bengt Forsberg. The first, In meine innige Nacht, was reminiscent of early Berg (another von Otter specialty), the middle two Liebesbriefchen and Sommer, written when the composer was still known as "little Korngold" by the musical giants of Vienna, and the last a reprise of Was du mir bist. Ms. von Otter is a stealth singer, producing a serene, quiet tone that reaches the back of the balcony effortlessly (a musical equivalent of a sotto voce) and surprising the uninitiated with a large, full-toned, sustained fortissimo when appropriate. Hers is a natural instrument of delightful timbre and she uses it wisely, consciously husbanding her resources with an ear to a long career exploring the hidden corners of the mezzo repertoire.
Of course this was Korngold, so we were treated to a set of Hollywood songs, originally written for a West Coast review assembled by Max Reinhardt and premiered in 1938 by Nanette Fabray. These Four Songs to Texts of William Shakespeare are reminiscent of the composer's movies of the period, especially Robin Hood and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Rossini, Verdi and Berg all had their "willow songs", so why not Korngold? Ms. von Otter performed Desdemona's Song with a deeply moving melancholy and securely navigated the alliteration of When Birds Do Sing with ease. The final song Mond, so gehst du wieder auf from Lieder des Abschieds was a poignant end to the vocal set and the basis of a movement of the final work of the evening, the Piano Quintet. For this chamber performance Ms. von Otter returned as the page-turner for Mr. Forsberg (how many other divas would do that?) and once again the performance of the Chamber Music Society players augmented by their Swedish friends was excellent.
As an encore Ms. von Otter sang that most famous of Korngold arias, Marietta's Lied from Die Tote Stadt in an arrangement for mezzo and piano quintet by the ubiquitous Mr. Forsberg. This is all in preview to their new CD of Korngold aptly billed as Anne Sofie von Otter and Friends. The magical experience of the evening was that we in the audience felt like members of this inner circle.
A personal delight for me was to converse with retired maestro Sixten Ehrling who attended this concert by his countrymen. I am happy to report that he is hale and hearty and enjoying a well-deserved valedictory period. On the disappointing side, the intimate atmosphere of this concert was inadvertently enhanced by the sparse crowd, a group made much smaller after Ms. von Otter's songs were over, and so only a few of us were there to enjoy the Piano Quintet and the encore, so marvelously evocative of old Vienna. I would have thought that Ms. von O's stardom would have made this one of the hottest tickets in town. Go figure.
Frederick L. Kirshnit