Superb new Muhly work unveiled in rewarding Brahms program with Ax and von Otter

Mon Jan 27, 2014 at 8:04 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Anne Sofie von Otter performed Brahms songs and Nico Muhly's "So Many Things" with Emanuel Ax Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.
Anne Sofie von Otter performed Brahms songs and Nico Muhly’s “So Many Things” with Emanuel Ax Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Anne Sofie von Otter has been a too infrequent visitor to Chicago in recent years, both in recital and at Lyric Opera.

The Swedish mezzo-soprano returned to Symphony Center Sunday afternoon for a Basically Brahms program with pianist Emanuel Ax. The event was part of the series’ Brahms Project, curated by Ax this season.

Clad in a long red velvet gown, von Otter, 58, remains a strikingly attractive woman with her refined and flexible voice likewise in fine repair.

The critical saw that one can never judge a performance by its opening minutes was certainly the case with this program. Von Otter’s first Brahms set was sensitively sung with words clear and admirable pure tone. And it was nice to hear a setting by one of her Swedish compatriots, Til en ros by Tor Aulin. Still the performances felt rather cool and generalized, and one settled in for an afternoon of lovely singing and little beyond that.

Fortunately, that proved not to be the case. After an anodyne start, the concert went from strength to strength with the performances of von Otter and Ax–together and individually—making for a notably enlightening afternoon of Brahms, spiced by two new works by Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli.

The singer’s second Brahms set went better with greater involvement and interpretive detailing. Von Otter brought understated drama to Auf dem Kirchofe, and a limpid tone and lovely soft ascent in Sommerabend. The more playful Jucche! was aptly spirited and the singer conveyed the longing and ardent expression of Von ewiger Liebe.

Emanuel Ax. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax.
Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Ax’s keyboard playing was a model of sympathetic accompaniment throughout the afternoon. The pianist also had his solo moments Sunday, including Missy Mazzoli’s Bolts of Loving Thunder, which was written for Ax and premiered earlier this month.

There are stylistic tropes in the opening section of Mazzoli’s piece that echo the sturm und drang of Brahms’ early piano music with much hand-crossing. Yet the work is ultimately unconvincing, segueing into 21st-century angularities and repeated-note fragments that grow tiresome, though Ax gave the music powerful and committed advocacy.

Much more rewarding was Nico Muhly’s So Many Things, written for von Otter and Ax and premiered by the two in Los Angeles the previous week. The work is written to texts by Joyce Carol Oates and the Greek poet Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelssohn (unhelpfully, the only texts not included in the program).

It’s a testament to Muhly’s considerable gifts that So Many Things by no means paled next to the Brahms songs surrounding it. Though backed by his edgy, often astringent proto-Minimalist piano writing, Muhly’s vocal style is in the American song tradition of Barber, Rorem and Diamond, with lyrical, richly melodic vocal lines. Indeed, So Many Things seems like a modern equivalent to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

The setting fits von Otter’ voice ideally, from the unaccompanied opening to the long, arching climax and was beautifully sung, with Ax handling the spiky and percussive piano part with equal assurance and aplomb.

In addition to the Mazzoli, Ax also offered four of Brahms’ late piano works in eloquent and idiomatic performances. Especially notable were a poised and expressive account of the Intermezzo in A major, and a probing rendering of the Intermezzo in B flat minor that captured that elusive Brahmsian blend of sadness and solace.

Once past the Muhly work, von Otter seemed more relaxed and allowed her personality to shine, with her moving account of Ruhe, Sussliebchen, im Schatten a highlightIn her concluding set of Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), von Otter was clearly enjoying herself, sashaying around the stage and turning to sing a stanza to those seated behind her.

The loud ovations brought von Otter and Ax back for three Brahms encores. First was a rapt rendering of Brahms’ Sappische Ode. Next von Otter brought great humor and vivid characterization ito the mother-daughter comic dialogue in Och Moder, ich well en Ding han.

Von Otter and Ax closed the afternoon with Brahms’s familiar Wiegenlied, her intimate performance dedicated to two departed CSO music directors she worked with, Sir Georg Solti and Claudio Abbado who passed away last week.

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