Anne Sofie von Otter and Brad Mehldau @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, February 25, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

When Anne Sofie von Otter sings, I get romantic. I hear in her voice echoes of instrumental silver, gold, platinum, and an occasional touch of brass; the warm-toned resonance of rosewood, the purity of  maple and alpine spruce. The present-day Swedish nightingale (her namesake, Jenny Lind, was adored by Hans Christian Andersen) has a reassuring, regal stage-presence. From there she transmits, by the merest tilt of her head or wave of her hand, the ripeness of her knowing about the dream-laden love song she is singing. Her highest notes (like those of Callas) are honed to a watered-steel edge so fine it can slide under the shadow of a memory and set it afloat like a windborne petal.

Brad Mehldau brings a two-handed intelligence and light touch on the keyboard to this collaboration. His melodic lines can dance with delicacy, and if needed, with a surging passion, and they can sing, often in the two distinct voices of his right and left hands. Every song gets his full conviction and emotional commitment, be it the slow, dark, chromatic chords of Brahms’ “Unbewegte laue Luft Op. 57″, that descends into a space of deep rest, or the flowing lyric passion of the “Op. 80” solo piano piece that Mehldau uplifts into a hymnic utterance.  The best thing I can say about the von Otter/Mehldau collaboration popped into my mind as they were doing “Die Nacht” by Richard Strauss. It’s a “hurting” song with a bluesy feeling coming from the piano, and I thought of Teddy Wilson at the keyboard with Billie Holiday.

The show they are touring with is based on their new double disc album Love Songs. In the first half we get 13 songs from Disc 1: Norwegian songs by Edvard Grieg, Swedish songs  by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Wilhelm Stenhammer, Finnish songs by Jan Sibelius, German songs by Brahms and Richard Strauss. The von Otter/Mehldau collaboration with this music, as I’ve noticed above, was gorgeous, but…being lost in translation takes some of the fun out of it.

After intermission there was linguistic relief offered by material from Disc 2, starting with the 5 songs Mehldau wrote based on poems by Sara Teasdale: these attracted him because they were rhythmic, simple, clear in meaning, and vitally female. “Child, child, love while you can,” is interesting because of the dire, tolling ostinato of discordant chords. “Twilight,” is a forlorn and powerful song with a dissonant melody that von Otter sings across chromatic piano chords. Her singing of the slow dripping, long, melodic lines of the ballad “Oh, because you never tried/To bow my will or break my pride” created a high devotional mood. “Dreams,” is a song about violent sexual feeling that Ms. von Otter recites in unbroken lines of sound across the piano’s endless trilling.

Once this interesting but ‘serious’ work was over, everything relaxed and the fun really began with songs by Joni Mitchell (“Michael from the Mountains,” and “Marcie”), Jacques Brel (“Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”), Michel Legrand (“The Windmills of my Mind”), Paul McCartney (“Blackbird”),  and “Walkin’ my Baby Back Home” (a 1931 hit written by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert that Ms. von Otter sang in Swedish).  Mehldau got to show a few edges of his legendary jazz improv skills. Ms. von Otter radiated an easy good humour as she made every song her own, except the “Walkin’ My Baby” which still belongs to Nat King Cole.

Here’s my bottom line. Two masters take us along on their adventure into new musical territory. The feeling when it’s over is that it is all good.

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