Les Nuits d'Été; Harold en Italie; et al.
With von Otter; Tamestit, viola; Les Musiciens du Louvre–Grenoble, Minkowski. Texts and translations. Naïve V5266
Six or seven years ago, a program of Baroque music in Alice Tully Hall, New York, took a sharp turn from the routine into something else altogether. The concert presented mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter alongside Marc Minkowski and his group, Les Musiciens du Louvre–Grenoble, with whom she had performed and also recorded before. The atmosphere went well beyond relaxation, finally resembling a jam session among old friends, with an improvisational flavor, a sense of risk and heady exuberance.
Reunited on this all-Berlioz disc, in music long familiar to her but somewhat new to his repertoire, von Otter and Minkowski demonstrate close collaboration of a different kind. In Les Nuits d'Été these artists just don't seem like themselves.
Von Otter's earlier recording of these songs, with James Levine, had a certain radiance and freedom along with its musicianship. Minkowski and his group have always stood out not just for their grainy period-instrument timbre but for an almost fierce rhythmic energy. The agenda here seems to be control, to ensure an even flow, a cultured sound. The chamber quality of the Louvre group is not exploited; this might be any expert full-scale orchestra.
The "Villanelle" that opens the cycle has promising energetic touches, with the singer detaching the syllables of "le lapin caché" (the rabbit in hiding) and "le daim" (the deer admiring its reflection as it drinks) — details that are rarely made to count in this song. Minkowski maintains the brisk pace until the last possible moment in each stanza, slowing by a bare minimum to allow the necessary down-shift in vocal registers — an effect that adds interest each time, even some suspense.
The four slow songs maintain a good tempo, but restricted breadth makes it seem slower. Von Otter's technical control remains prodigious, from her bright, open high notes to a softly exhaled bottom E on the sinister word "linceul" (winding sheet). You have to admire her phrasing and vocal punctuation of the French, her breath capacity for long phrases. But for the most part, this is linear singing, nimble, clearly outlined but rarely filled in and never overflowing. In her pale middle and lower registers she relies, as in the darkest song, "Sur les lagunes," on whitened tone or a hint of plaintive tremolo.
Her participation concludes with a cool "Le roi de Thulé" from La Damnation de Faust. Possibly von Otter and Minkowski are respecting Berlioz's documented instructions that Marguerite should sound distracted, not overtly expressive, in this scene-setting air, but her restraint makes the (uncredited) violist, playing the folk-tinged obbligato, sound like the star.
The other half of the program has a different manner. Berlioz's atmospheric symphony/concerto Harold en Italie clearly energizes Antoine Tamestit, a dynamic young violist who shows a commanding "voice" and considerable virtuosity. The Musiciens muster plenty of force in the brass and tutti passages of the final movement's "bandits' orgy," while elsewhere, especially in the Abruzzi shepherd serenade, their chamber precision is arresting, and Minkowski phrases with Italianate flair.
DAVID J. BAKER