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Journey to Otter Space

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
12/28/2011 -  & December 29, 30, 2011
Franz Josef Haydn: Symphony No. 88 in G
Franz Schubert: Die Forelle (Orchestrated by Benjamin Britten) – Gretchen am SpinnradeNacht und Träume – Erlkönig – Im Abendrot (Orchestrated by Max Reger) – An Silvia (Orchestrated by anonymous)
Maurice Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye (complete ballet) – La Valse

Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo-soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

A. S. von Otter (© Courtesy of the Artist)

During the intermission of the New York Philharmonic concert, I overheard a patron’s outrageous remark: “New York tonight is really cold.”

What???, I wanted to ask. After listening to Anne Sofie von Otter sing for 25 minutes, you dared mention the word “cold?” Absurd! For this Swedish mezzo-soprano, wrapped in a dazzling tangerine-colored mega-skirt, and at the top of her musical form, still has that warmth, that purity, that utter grace in every line, that transcends mere meteorology.

Granted, Ms von Otter’s voice often surpassed her music, some of which was more curious than enthralling. Yes, the six lieder were by Franz Schubert. But Schubert, who only made a single orchestration of his own songs, was here orchestrated by two other composers (as well as an “Anon”). Much, sadly, was gilding the lily.

Not so the first song, Die Forelle, for the lively trout here was depicted by a pair of clarinets, glissading in the waves of the brook. Benjamin Britten never published this orchestration, and he might have thought it an ephemeral work. But its very simplicity, with the melody practically danced by Ms. von Otter, was its own reward.

Schubert is eternal, of course. But the four Max Reger orchestrations were confined to his over-stuffed age. Like an Edwardian lady, Reger chaperoned his soloist with various winds and strings, filling out the voice with far too much orchestra. This worked well with Im Abendrot, the “evening’s glow” given a modal orchestral background. Gretchen at her spinning wheel was not improved by the spinning strings. Saddest of all, Erlkönig was less than frightening. Buzzing cellos can never duplicate the deep piano opening, the plain two chords at the end hardly have the tragic finality of Schubert’s original.

None of this deterred Anne Sofie von Otter, whose intensity (in the Erl King) and religiosity (in Night and Dreams) was paired with that unfathomably beautiful voice.

Alan Gilbert–giving up on formal wear, dressed all in black–prepared us for the Schubert with a Haydn 88th Symphony that was warm, sunny, sometimes wryly mocking in the introduction, pastoral in the trio of the third movement, and altogether elegiac.

The second half was devoted to Ravel, mainly a rare performance of his complete Mother Goose. Like the Schubert, this was orchestrated after the piano four-hands version, but Ravel didn’t simply clothe his music. The five piano pieces are lively, literal retellings of fairy stories. The ballet, with its long prelude and longer linking sections, is rarely played. Nobody can deny that Ravel understood how to turn an orchestra into the most delicate tapestry, and here it was as fresh and glowing as Daphnis.

Mr. Gilbert resisted the idea of drenching the work with ultra-sensuous drawn-out passages. Ravel was a most sophisticated composer, and the conductor let the music do the visualizing. The Phil responded with pinpoint accuracy and acuity.

The finale, La Valse presented a personal problem. Specifically, I cannot hear that music today, since the very first New York Philharmonic concert I ever attended ended with Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting La Valse. What I remember a raging, mesmeric performance, with legendary NY Phil percussionist Saul Goodman shattering all records for sheer volume.

Perhaps it wasn’t that way at all. But as an eight-year-old, I recalled that performance with the minutiae that one remembers one’s first love-making. And nothing quite surpasses that experience.

I believe that Maestro Gilbert gave a suitably crisp and energetic show, though I could only hear the piece as it “was”. What I do know is that at the end, of La Valse last night, the final notes finished the piece. In Carnegie Hall, all those years ago, the resonances and echoes continued for ten seconds after the conductor lay his baton down…

In my mind, they resonate today.

Harry Rolnick



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