Lovely. Lovelier. Loveliest? This reviewer may have to dig deeper into his cache of superlatives to adequately summarize the experience of hearing two of today’s most penetrating musical artists Friday night at Jordan Hall. Dream pairings like that of Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter and Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, in addition to being inordinately rare, are the sort of event only an organization such as Celebrity Series could provide to Boston audiences.
The initial selections, miniatures culled from Beethoven’s rarely performed (at least compared to his canonic symphonic works) settings of Goethe poems, were indeed lovely, and if von Otter’s instrument seemed to take a few minutes to settle in on repertoire which came off slightly undercooked in comparison to the sumptuous feast which followed, the audience was given a chance to acclimate to the luxuriant phrasing and atmosphere of calm, focused music-making which would permeate the entire evening.
One gets the uncanny sense Angela Hewitt prepares for musical entrances long before they actually take place; the way she emerges into an opening phrase conveys the feeling you’ve been invited to join this exquisite musician on a journey already underway by the time the first note is played. Watching this, I was reminded of my earliest training in hand-eye coordination which I received not at a Steinway, but hoisting a Louisville Slugger. Any decent hitter will describe a good swing as one with a robust, clean, and clear follow-through; Hewitt’s opening phrases are a preparatory version of what Ted Williams knew so well. (I admit, given the current fever for Our Local (Deflated) Pigskin Squad—and defensiveness on their behalf given the current unfortunate national witch-hunt—who head to the Super Bowl in one week, I wondered whether fans who appreciate the dexterity, grace, and fearlessness of Tom Brady might have admired the same qualities in this recital? Call me a cultural optimist.)
It’s good to witness up close how much Hewitt’s live performing mirrors this ‘breathing’ quality present in her albums; her recordings of Bach, Handel and Haydn on the Hyperion label are some of the finest modern recordings of Baroque and early Classical keyboard repertoire made in the last twenty years. Amongst contemporary pianists, Simone Dinnerstein comes to mind as an artist with a similar touch, economy of phrase, and warmth at the keyboard. Pianist Keith Jarrett once said “If I could call everything I did ‘Hymn,’ it would be appropriate because that’s what they are when they’re correct.” Hewitt possesses this spiritual presence as much as any other modern classical pianist.
On face value, the pairing of these two musicians makes perfect sense: both are members of a rare cadre—simultaneously artistically rich, commercially successful, and critically acclaimed classical artists. The granddaughter of a former Swedish Prime Minister, von Otter began her career in the world of opera, yet she can boast of collaborations with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and pop songwriter Elvis Costello (both daring figures in their respective fields), as well as of explorations of folk songs from her native Sweden. She is the more musically explorative, while Hewitt’s repertoire lies directly in the center of mainstream recorded classical music. Von Otter’s unwavering purity of diction and intonation might be seen as an analogue to Hewitt’s clarity of contrapuntal line and manner of singing through the right hand. Musically, the qualities the two share most are: 1) a technique capable of transcending the limitations which would make lesser musicians falter 2) a consistently focused, crystalline intensity of sound (which in von Otter’s case sets her apart from the wobbly vibrato of many of her operatic contemporaries) 3) a frequent indulgence in rubatos 4) an utterly convincing willingness to linger at the conclusion of a musical phrase, to live out what Goethe himself once implored in Faust: “Then to the moment might I say, linger awhile… so fair thou art!”
Beethoven’s “In questa tomba oscura” presented the first chance to hear Ms. von Otter’s famous bell-tone soprano range, and she executed a brief high note with the easy finesse of a gymnastic leaper. By this song, von Otter also began to settle into her perch by the piano. Lieder recitals typically shy away from “acting” in the sense of Stanislavskian realism, relying instead upon a distillation of emotion through controlled, ideally organic gestures—as a high school musical director once implored us via triple-time vocal warm-ups, “a SING-er IS-an ACT-or TOO!” —yet von Otter found the perfect balance of acknowledging (and not ignoring, as many young singers make the mistake of doing) her own physical reality onstage while also granting the music primary focus. Some of these gestures were overt, and even the non-German speakers in the hall probably knew what von Otter was after when she began furiously scratching her arms at “Der hatt’ einen grossen Floh!”
We witnessed von Otter grapple with (and ultimately, surmount) the most essential aesthetic element of stage performers, and that is stage presence, which I’ll define as the innate, urgent desire to share a truth with the audience. (It’s the part that can’t be taught, and it’s emotional and process-derived, not technical and static.) A true artist allows the creation of the music to be a personally transformative experience night after night, and through this, acknowledges and makes peace with the artifice lying at the core of the distance between artist and audience within the ossified ritual of Classical music performance. (In other words, “I stand here and produce these beautiful, perfect sounds, while you sit there stone-faced and clap at the correct moments.” Even worse, as I recall the admonishments of a conservatory teacher: “Every move you make on stage reflects the level of your professionalism.” The unnecessary physical tension this mindset breeds in Serious Performers of Serious Repertoire are palpable. In America, classical musicians suffer from this malady severely; non-classical musicians barely acknowledge its existence.) Still, many great performers have solved this challenge (Gil Shaham provided a recent example at Symphony Hall), which has as much to do with artists’ comfort in their own skins, becoming the physical embodiment of the composer’s will, as with anything strictly musical. Hewitt has it, too: at the conclusion of a solo Chabrier piece in the second half featuring solitary notes climbing off the highest register of the piano, she flicked the final, imaginary ones out toward the audience with a wink.
As the first half progressed through 19th-century German musical history, elegantly connecting Beethoven to Schubert and Schubert to Brahms, the aesthetic connections between music and poetry that informed the genesis of these songs lurked like a nagging ghost. German lyric poetry hardly remains in vogue in 2015, nor, for that matter, English poetry; we’re left in a sense envying an era when the borders connecting word and sound were so organically porous. (Or perhaps they are still today—though I don’t expect to see underground hip-hop presented at Jordan Hall any time soon.)
Hewitt’s Schubert, as exemplified in the solo Impromptu in G-flat Major, was less Schubert as tormented genius, more Schubert as restorative balm. In “Im Abendrot,” von Otter summoned an ecstatic, ethereal presence, closing her eyes to the impossible beauty: “O, wie schön ist deine Welt” indeed. Immediately following Schubert, Brahms veered in the direction of the stoic and the studied. Hewitt’s rendition of the solo Intermezzo in E-flat Major imbued the old, gilded hall with a musty, haunted presence; in comparison, the sunny sentimentality of the concluding return to the tonic major key came off, perhaps, as untrustworthy. I need not mention that metaphysical aesthetic reflections such as these are only possible after an audience places full trust in a performer.
Lovelier was the second half, which shifted from Germany to the southwest, featuring music of five French composers of the late 19th century: Hahn, Fauré, Chabrier, Debussy, and Chaminade. The fluid sensuality of this language marvelously suits von Otter’s voice, which at once opened up playfully, then retreated to a place of sophisticated, mysterious intimacy. Hewitt’s solo working of Chabrier’s “Idylle” was unassuming, making up in whimsy what it perhaps lacked in melodic inspiration; the second solo piano piece by Chabrier’s “Bourrèe fantastique” was a fiendishly difficult study in contrasts. An unexpected shout-out to women’s equality came in an introduction to tragically unsung composer Cécile Chaminade, once called “Our little Mozart!” by George Bizet. These six songs, which concluded the formal program, were the most surprising musical delights of the evening, vacillating between ornate delicacy, rousing passion, and a manic patter charmingly redolent of the Folies Bergère.
Loveliest. By the time of the three encores, the audience had so fully warmed to both performers that a sense of fully free and relaxed musicmaking felt inevitable. The subtly-recognizable first encore (but where do we know it from?) turned out to be “Parlez moi d’amour,” by Jean Lenoir, used as wistful currency in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” The second encore, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” encouraged that very activity in the hall, as the singer pranced to different parts of the stage deliberately addressing off-center segments of the crowd. The distance between the early modern French songs we had just heard and Chaplin’s yearning, originally wordless melody (composed for “Modern Times” in 1936, with lyrics only added in 1954) seemed a very small step. A third and final encore, the exquisitely obscure “Goodnight (I’ll See You in the Morning)” of 1926 by the immortal Carl Hohengarten (?!), delivered with printed lyrics in hand, was as delightful as anything in the entire evening. What this reviewer wouldn’t give to hear an entire album of 20s pop tunes from this magical duo! As they might have said back then… I’m a dreamer, aren’t we all?