Thursday 27 October 2016

A Celebration of Shakespeare: Anne Sofie von Otter, Julius Drake and Henry Goodman

Anne Sofie von Otter - © Mats Bäcker
Anne Sofie von Otter - © Mats Bäcker
Purcell, RVW, Britten, Schubert, Korngold, Debussy, Berlioz, Sibelius, Tippett, Wainwright, Cole Porter; Anne Sofie von Otter, Julius Drake, Henry Goodman; Temple Music at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 27 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Words and music interwine in the celebration of Shakespeare

A Celebration of Shakespeare in Words and Music at Middle Temple Hall on 26 October 2016 was a late celebration of Shakespeare 400 in the only surviving venue from Shakespeare's time where his plays were performed (Middle Temple Hall saw a performance of Twelfth Night in 1602). Presented by Temple Music as part of their Temple Song series, the evening featured mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, with actor Henry Goodman. The programme was curated by Sophie Hunter and featured songs by Purcell, RVW, Britten, Schubert, Korngold, Berlioz, Sibelius, Tippett, Rufus Wainwright and Cole Porter, interleaved with readings from Shakespeare.

The programme was arranged in themed sections, Music, Love, Hamlet, 'Love, Death and Foreboding', The Tempest, Sonnets sometimes sticking to just one play and sometimes mixing sources but keeping the overall theme. There was a highly effective sequence from A Midsummer Night's Dream mixing Britten's opera with selections from the play. The music seemed to have been placed in the programme according to the theme of the text, so that sometimes the conjunction of composers was a little uneven. In the first half we had Purcell, Britten, Schubert, Britten, Korngold, Debussy, Berlioz with Schubert's An Silvia sitting a little oddly in an extended Britten sequence. But the strong end to the first half with Berlioz's La mort d'Ophelie led into a more coherent second half, with striking songs by Sibelius, Tippett and Rufus Wainwright.

Henry Goodman was a relatively late replacement in the programme, not that you could tell. He had the ability to quickly move from character to character, evoking just the right sense of drama for each whether it be Hamlet, Prospero or Puck. He and Anne Sofie von Otter really interacted together, not just in the extended scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream (where Goodman played Puck to von Otter's Oberon) but elsewhere too, and you felt that each really listened when the other was performing. In places, Julius Drake rather effectively overlapped piano introductions and speech to form a continues whole. And for the finale, Goodman joined von Otter in a performance of Cole Porter's Brush up your Shakespeare.

Purcell's If music be the food of love was contained, yet expressive, though we were aware that von Otter's voice did not quite have the sheen on it that once had but this was compensated for my a real sensitivity to the words. And throughout the programme it was her feeling for the words, sometimes at the expense of musical line, which really came over. She is also a very vivid performer, highly mobile and dramatic, creating a real scene out of each song. RVW's Orpheus with his Lute had a nice calmness to it, but I felt need a far greater sense of line but Benjamin Britten's Fancie was vividly done conveying expression both with voice and eyes.

Schubert's An Silvia (sung in German) was a finely crafted miniature and was followed by the highly effective sequence from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Von Otter sang 'I know a bank' to the manner born, with Julius Drake really bringing out the colours in the accompaniment, which worked surprisingly well on piano. Henry Goodman made a delightful, and highly active Puck, and we had a second sequence from the opera starting with Oberon's 'This is thy negligence' and ending with Puck's 'Up and down, up and down, I will lead them up and down'.

Eric Korngold's two songs from Twelfth Night (set in English) were lyrical and melodic, with some lovely details in O mistress mine, and a fast and furious yet very characterful Adieu, good man devil. The first half concluded with Hector Berlioz's La mort d'Ophelie where von Otter really brought out the sinuous lines of the vocal writing, and made the melismatic passages rather haunting. Her style here was expressive yet classical, and supported by Julius Drake's fine piano playing the result as very affecting.

The second half opened with Othello including the traditional anonymous setting of Desdemona's Willow Song which von Otter sang unaccompanied whilst walking round the room, simple but very effective. The two songs by Jean Sibelius, from Twelfth Night again, were very striking indeed. It was lovely to hear von Otter singing her native Swedish and to appreciate the colour and musicality of the text. Come away death was strong and direct, rather arioso like and terrific indeed. Hey, ho, the wind and the rain was vividly up tempo, with von Otter putting a great deal into the performance.

A sequence from The Tempest included Tippett's Songs for Ariel. Von Otter gave each song a great sense of individual character, with a great variety of colour in her voice but by the end I did wonder whether a calmer more classical performance might have suited better.

Rufus Wainwright's settings of Sonnet 43 and Sonnet 20 represented an intriguing cross-fertilisation between classical and something rather bluesier (including some scat in Sonnet 43). The results were lyrical and not a little subtle, and something I would be interest in coming back to.

We finished with a delightful performance of Cole Porter's Brush up your Shakespeare with von Otter and Goodman making a superb double act!

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