“Anne Sofie von Otter and Friends” filled Paine Hall to capacity for the Boston Early Music Festival Concert Series on Sunday. No vanity project this, for the musically omnivorous Swedish mezzo-soprano, but rather an intimate colloquy among three supremely gifted colleagues. Otter’s voice, Thomas Dunford’s theorbo, and Jonathan Cohen’s chamber organ and harpsichord playing came together with the intimacy of a great jazz trio, exploring mostly Baroque repertoire in an emotional range from sublime to delightfully ridiculous.
The first half centered on songs and instrumental works of the English and Italian Baroque. Coming without a break, the first seven immediately demonstrated this trio’s range and skill. Henry Purcell’s “Music for a while” describes the power of music to beguile even the Classical Fury Alecto. Dunford and Cohen on the organ embellished the song’s chromatic, undulating ground bass, watching each other intently and improvising all of the figurations and harmonies above the bass line. Otter, regal with her shock of straight, silver hair and textured purple gown, moved back and forth across the stage, gestured expressively in an almost semi-staged fashion, and eschewed her gleaming, opulent operatic voice, opting instead for a restrained, intimate dynamic. From my ground level seat I could easily hear her above her partners (though a friend told me that the balances favored the instrumentalists in the balcony). Her enunciation was crystal clear, only betraying the occasional hint that English isn’t her native tongue, and the phrases could be shaped with care and attention at this quiet dynamic, making for a wonderfully anguished melisma on “eternal” in the text, “‘Till Alecto free the (patricidal) dead from their eternal bands,” and using an evocative staccato attack to word-paint the word “drop” in “‘Till the snakes drop from her head.”
For “Come again,” John Dowland’s strophic ode to the pains of courtly love, Otter gave a breathless anticipation to the double-entendre repeats of “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die,” while she held back, almost a beat behind to illustrate the reluctance in the second stanza of “I sit, I sigh, I weep, I faint, I die.” In Dowland’s “Can she excuse my wrongs,” the group varied instrumentation: Dunford dueted with Otter for the first three stanzas, and Cohen joined on harpsichord for the last three stanzas. The group gave marvelous point to Robert Devereux’s text, which toys with the language of courtly love to express his disappointment at his failure to win favor with Queen Elizabeth I. Dunford and Cohen then segued directly into The King of Denmark’s Galliard by Dowland, with lovely give and take, careful watching and grinning delightedly at each other’s improvisations on Dowland’s lively court dance.
Dunford’s been hailed him as the “Eric Clapton of the lute.” Perhaps it then comes as small surprise that they played a song by Robert Johnson, though “Have you seen the white lily grow” is an allusive tune by a British late Renaissance composer to a text by Ben Jonson, rather than a tune by the legendary Mississippi delta bluesman. Otter started this song unaccompanied, was joined by Dunford and Cohen on organ about halfway through. The sentiment intensified as the song progressed. Towards the end of the piece, Otter started scooping up to her notes from below, spoiling some of the harmonies, though this may have been deliberate on the words, “O so white, O so soft, O so sweet is she.” This moved abruptly into Dowland’s “Fine knacks for ladies,” a catalog of a street vendor’s wares loaded with subtle allusion to the trashy and true in people. All three sang in earthy unison in the choruses, evoking the sound world of Orlando Gibbons’s “The Cries of London,” and with Otter even venturing into a subtle Cockney twang. This venture into the ridiculous shifted directly into the sublime world of Dowland’s Lachrimae. Here, Dunford’s skills were put on display, quieting to hushed dynamics worthy of Andrés Segovia, shaping Dowland’s exquisite dissonances with spare, spacious sound, at a leisurely tempo but without ever losing sight of the melodic line. After this stunning performance, the group took its first real pause, for well-deserved rounds of applause.
The trio then performed two arias from Purcell’s “semi-opera,” King Arthur. “What power art thou” is sung by the Cold Genius, awakened reluctantly from a frosty sleep. Otter made much of Purcell’s repeated, staccato notes (on most every noun or verb in the text) to evoke the sense of a chilly, bitter cold; Dunford and Cohen worked their improvisatory magic on the aria’s pulsing ground bass. “Fairest Isle” is sung by Venus in the masque that closes the final act, where the fairest isle is Britain as paradise on earth. In this song, again, Dunford began as the sole accompanist with a lilting, swinging figure, and Cohen joined deftly halfway through on harpsichord. After the final text, “And as these excel in beauty, those shall be renown’d for love,” the three musicians all hummed the initial tune in a final repeat.
Following without pause, the Italian segment gave Dunford a chance to explore the full range of his instrument. In Giovanni Kapsberger’s Toccata #6 he played both the bass notes on the low neck on the top and high notes on its bottom neck. Moments of calm were punctuated with high-speed flourishes that made it clear where the Clapton comparisons came from. He also pulled back to a barely audible hush, with the audience hanging on every note. This contrasted with the following Calata ala spagnola of Joan Ambrosia Dalza, a charming dance-form piece.
The closing work of the first half was the longest, and the strangest of them all. Francesco Provenzale was a Neapolitan composer of sacred and operatic repertoire from a generation before Bach and Handel. His cantata, Squarciato appena havea, draws inspiration from the legendary grief of Queen Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg upon learning of the battlefield death of her husband, King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden. The cantata has episodes of skillfully set recitative, narrating the story of the message being brought to the Queen and her descent into mad grief. However, in a touch worthy of the Goon Show or Monty Python, the words spoken by messenger and Queen are replaced by a series of bawdy Neapolitan street songs. The trio delighted in the sharp contrast of recitative of escalating emotional intensity and lusty, earthy folk tunes. Otter eventually picked up a tambourine to add to the absurdity, and the instrumentalists joined in to bring the song to a gloriously ridiculous conclusion.
After the intermission, the trio turned to music of the French Baroque and more contemporary fare. They began with Cohen and Dunford in one of François Couperin’s better known harpsichord compositions, Les barricades mystérieuses, from the Second live de pieces de clavecin. Cohen executed with just the right push and pull of tempo, to help build up its characteristic meditative pull. Dunford joined in, improvising a second part, his hesitant additions didn’t improve this beloved harpsichord solo. In a song by the 17th-century composer Michel Lambert, “Ma bergère best tender et fidèle” (My shepherdess is tender and faithful), Dunford and Cohen settled into a groove in the chaconne-like bass, while Otter soared over with a lament over how the shepherdess is faithful to her flock, her crook, and her dog, but not to the singer, and she gave an especially ugly turn of phrase to the word, “chien” (dog).
In Chaconne in d minor by Robert de Visée, theorbist Dunford and harpsichordist Cohen playing on the lute stop had a lovely rhythmic and harmonic interplay over a repeating bass figure. Lambert’s “Vos mépris chaque jour” (Your scorn each day) is a major-key chaconne song, describing the singer’s pleasure at the pain of love. Otter gave lovely sonic decoration to the repeat of the text “si dans mess max je troupe want de charmes” (if in my ills I find so many charms). More music of the madness of love came from Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s air “Celle qui fait mon tourment” (She who is responsible for all of my suffering I love to the point of madness). This song was played and sung faster and faster as it progressed, suggesting this notion of increasing lovesick frenzy. The two instrumentalists proceeded to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les sauvages, with theorbo again adding to a harpsichord piece describing the dancing of Louisiana Native Americans with the same swinging sweep present in the Charpentier.
The group then jumped into modern times with Arvo Pärt’s setting of the Robert Burns text, “My heart’s in the highlands.” In this setting, a chaconne-like wandering continuo part in organ and theorbo underpins the Burns text, sung on a single repeated note which rises step by step as it goes through each of four stanzas. The repeated note melody (if it can be called that) was initially odd, but somehow, the Burns text, homesick for highland home, came across in oddly affecting fashion. Then, the group did a series of pop song covers, including Björk’s “Cover Me,” Rufus Wainwright’s “Who Are You, New York?”, Kate Bush’s “Bertie,” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” I don’t know any of these songs apart from Sting’s tune, so I can’t comment on whether the songs translate to Baroque trio. I will note that the Wainwright offered a virtuosic stream of fast moving harpsichord notes, “Bertie” had a loverly Baroque lilt to it, and “Fields of Gold” completes a circle, reminding us that Sting recorded an album of Dowland songs in 2007. The final group of encores included a song of Henry Lawes, Paul Simon’s “Happy Song,” and Arnalta’s lullaby from Act II of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.
This program in Philadelphia, New York, Santa Monica, and Washington DC before going their own ways: Otter to sing Sibelius songs with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Dunford to play in the orchestra of Les Arts Florissants; and Cohen to conduct the Orchestre National de l’Ile de France.