Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg: "A Summer's Day"
Swedish Romantic Songs. With Zetterström. BIS SACD 1867
Von Otter's program of conventional folk-inspired, lieder-inspired Swedish songs takes an unexpected turn after the first nine tracks. Those opening selections in her survey, composed by Adolf Lindblad (1801–78) — the "Swedish Schubert," who bore a torch for Jenny Lind — display the derivative style we expect, fairly or not, from a European country that, in terms of musical influence, remains a debtor nation.
But then the less-familiar Erik Geijer (1783–1847) seems to break the mold. Geijer was not primarily known for his music; an advocate of Swedish nationalism in the arts, he was variously active as historian, poet, philosopher, clergyman and university official at Uppsala. Yet the four songs heard here strike some memorable sparks.
"Blomplockerskan" (The Flower Picker) sheds Romantic dreaminess for a sprightly operetta flavor sparked by multiple groupings of sixteenth-notes in a demonstration of contrasting moods. More surprising yet is Geijer's forty-three-second-long "Gräl och allt väl" (Kiss and Make It Up), in A-minor, which moves from chattiness to more exuberant declamation against a steady spinning-wheel rhythm. Geijer's last two songs also probe states of mind with an economical touch.
The rest of the program continues to mix familiar elements with occasional gems. Another entire batch of Lindblad tunes and some not particularly memorable work from August Soderman make one appreciate all the more the crafty nuances registered in several songs by Franz Adolf Berwald (1796–1868).
Berwald was a frustrated composer of operas who came close to a breakthrough in the European capitals; he apparently chose to set texts in German and French, to appeal to wider audiences. He often avoids uniform strophic structure — so often heard throughout this program — in favor of more text-dominated through-composed songs, open-ended and confident. "Romance" and "À votre âge" find the voice and piano deliberately at cross-purposes, until a regular pattern is, almost reluctantly, imposed. "Lebt wohl ihr Berge" (Farewell, Ye Mountains), which sets lines from Schiller's Joan of Arc, is far more expressive than conventionally melodic. Other items can be vocally elaborate and demanding.
In fairness to Lindblad, he has his own moments of originality, though the program could have sampled him less extensively. (He accounts for more than a third of this collection.) His contrasting duets (with dynamic baritone Fredrik Zetterström joining von Otter) proceed from the stereotypical "Frieriet" (Marriage Proposal) to the more varied "Pa Gamla Dagar" (In Old Age), which contrasts passages in minor and major modes. He also captures the pathos of aging in "Gubben vid Vagen" (Old Man by the Roadside), with its telling descent into D-minor. His dynamic "Brollopsfarden," about a trip to attend a wedding, is a wonderful rhythmic exercise in which von Otter makes the most of the contrasts and the text's rich consonants.
The ever-dependable mezzo and her expert accompanist, Bengt Forsberg, have programmed Swedish composers on disc and recital programs, and their touch is very sure. At times her tone might want a bit more lushness, but every line is fully in character. The phrasing could hardly be more expert, and the interaction between voice and piano provides a lesson in the art of the recital.
DAVID J. BAKER
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