Anne Sofie von Otter: "So Many Things"
Brooklyn Rider. Texts, no translations. Naïve V5436
SWEDISH MEZZO Anne Sofie von Otter has always been pretty hip. Four of her previous recital discs feature covers of pop and rock favorites by the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell; she even recorded an entire ABBA tribute album. She also regularly promotes the music of living composers, having performed the premieres of works by Peter Eötvös and her compatriot Sven-David Sandström. For So Many Things, von Otter sought to bridge the divide between the popular music she loves and the often-impenetrable world of contemporary composition. The recording alternates between numbers by forward-thinking singer/songwriters and art songs by pop-influenced composers. The mezzo attempts to smooth the transitions between these two musical worlds by adopting a hybrid singing style reminiscent of musical theater; it’s appropriate for the pop and rock tunes but a bit affected in the lieder—she overemphasizes every pitch remotely resembling a blue note, and there are more scoops and slides than at a Britney Spears concert.
In the end, the two halves of So Many Things—the pop covers and the more classical-leaning pieces—don’t mesh as well as von Otter might have hoped. But it’s the conservatory-trained composers who are disappointing, not the “mainstream” songwriters. Many of today’s most successful American-based composers have straightjacketed themselves stylistically. They reject the dissonance and alienating extremes of high modernism, hoping to produce accessible music; at the same time, they’re too embarrassed to write classically beautiful melodies, as if they would lose their avant-garde “cred.” Under such self-imposed constraints, they end up writing the kind of limp, meandering vocal lines heard in the lengthy title track by Nico Muhly; it’s a wishy-washy, inoffensive setting of wordy poems by Constantin P. Cavafy and Joyce Carol Oates, with some jazzy inflections thrown in to hold the listener’s interest. John Adams’s “Am I in Your Light?,” from Doctor Atomic, is equally unchallenging, though the bland arrangement for von Otter’s accompanying ensemble, the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, doesn’t do justice to Adams’s intricate, colorful orchestration.
The pop and rock stars prove to be the true innovators. Ironically, these artists produce fresh, engaging material using the same old verse–chorus form. Von Otter seems more at home in this repertoire. Sting’s “Practical Arrangement,” with a guitar-like accompaniment of pizzicato cello, and Elvis Costello’s “Speak Darkly, My Angel” sound straight out of the Great American Songbook, and von Otter’s interpretations of these unpretentious love ballads are particularly intimate. Kate Bush’s “Pi,” in which von Otter sings her way through more than seventy digits of the irrational number, and Colin Jacobsen’s “For Sixty Cents,” which lists all the restaurant amenities a cheap cup of coffee will afford, would work well in a cabaret set. (Jacobsen is, admittedly, a composer and not a songwriter, but he has a better ear for melody than his colleagues on the New Music scene.) Björk is harder to transfer to von Otter’s crossover style; the mezzo tries to emulate the Icelandic singer’s otherworldly vocal timbre with some funky reverb on “Hunter,” but it sounds like cheap imitation. The final track, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent,” from Rufus Wainwright’s recent opera Prima Donna, is a rare example of a songwriter effectively composing in an operatic vein; von Otter shapes his Debussyian vocal line subtly and breathlessly, underscored by Brooklyn Rider’s delicate, flute-like harmonics. —Joe Cadagin