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Anne Sofie von Otter and Emanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall

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Anne Sofie von Otter, Emanuel Ax

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Ordinarily, mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter is known more for her appearances in grand opera, but it was the work of Johannes Brahms that took center stage on Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Accompanied by the brilliantly nuanced pianist Emanuel Ax, they also debuted a New York premiere by the young American composer Nico Muhly; this proved to be no ordinary recital.

Ms. von Otter took the stage in a floor length gown of beautifully vibrant red velvet (the dress alone was worthy of applause), and jumped right into her first piece, “Erlaube mir, feins Mädchen.” What I find most interesting is the fact that even though Ms. von Otter is not a new comer, she still generates the same excitement on stage as a fresh-faced newly-unioned singer. She still shows this quality, this joy for singing, as a natural extension of her speaking voice. And what a voice… She possessed a flawless ability to toss off high notes without any hint of stress, while projecting with apple crisp diction. It is no secret she is Swedish, but it is still a thrill to hear the language from a singer who comes from the same dialect/region.

After her first set, which included a piece in her native Swedish, she welcomed the audience into the relatively warm, if always slightly chilly, hall for the evening. What the venue lacked in heat, our artists made up for with their warmth of spirt and vibrancy of performance.

Ordinarily during these recitals, both singer and pianist will exit then re-enter after each set. But Ms. von Otter and Mr. Ax did not do this. Ms. von Otter would sit behind the piano as Mr. Ax played his portion. Slightly unorthodox, but effective in the cohesiveness of the poetry of the evening. Rather than chopping up each set with applause, disappearing and reappearing, the night was able to flow naturally, and felt more connective as each piece had room stretch itself into the other.

The beauty continued toward the end of the second act wherein Ms. von Otter was able to show her ability to truly connect with the text. In “Sommerabend,” she floated a high note on the word “Dorten” that seemed to emanate from somewhere deep within the softness of her tone. The effect was just stunning and simply gorgeous. She was able to be playful without being campy in the buoyant “Juchhe!,” then turn on a dime to flex her dramatic muscle in “Von ewiger Liebe,” then revert back to comedic in “Ständchen,” which concluded our first act.

Nico Muhly, whose opera Two Boys recently made its Met debut, wrote So Many Things specifically for Emanuel Ax and Anne Sofie von Otter in 2013. The music was set to two translated poems of C. F. Cavafy and one by Joyce Carol Oates. Of course, the danger with setting new music to text is finding its meaning. One can find that meaning churning in the score which tells the story, like any good opera, rather than the text alone taking the narrative role. Atonal, but not annoyingly so, with lyric passages that make sense musically and harmonically, as it flowed from sporadic piano spasms, to beautiful arches of musical line as the text changed too. A particularly gorgeous moment came with Ms. von Otter sang “I crafted you” as she took the end of the phrase and held it while bending it to a beautiful extent.

We proceeded through the second half with more Brahms where Ms von Otter glittered her solid gold sound (which seemed just as plush her dress), especially in “Nachtwandler” and “Ruhe, Süssliebchen” as she emoted the refrain of “Ewig bin ich dein, ewig bin ich dein.”

It is very clear both of these artists are at the top of their game, and it was pure Freude to see and hear them perform these sets.

For more information about Carnegie Hall, click here.

For more information about Anne Sofie von Otter, click here.

For more information about Emanuel Ax, click here.

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