Schubert has a unique combination of simplicity and complexity," says Anne Sofie von Otter about the composer whose masterworks she sings December 28 _30 with the New York Philharmonic. "And simplicity is often hard!" Six of Schubert's most beloved songs (or Lieder) are on the program, including "Die Forelle," "Gretchen am Spinnrade," "Du bist die Ruh," "An Sylvia," "Erlk‹nig," and "Nacht und Tr‹ume." About this last song, the Swedish mezzo-soprano says that at first it can seem like just "a few phrases repeated a couple of times, nothing much going on." She points out that the accompaniment portrays a sense of calm and movement and, at the same time, "the vocal part weaves around itself to give a sense of yearning, then opens up for the B section. No one but Schubert could have written this exquisite song : this is a masterpiece."
During his brief life of 31 years, Franz Schubert often performed his compositions in Vienna at intimate house parties dubbed "Schubertiades." He was a student of Antonio Salieri, an excellent keyboardist, and a prolific composer who wrote somewhere between 600 and 900 songs (depending on the criteria for counting). However, Schubert was also an artist with an exquisite sensitivity to poetry. As a result, he crafted songs with piano accompaniments that are particularly renowned for the extraordinary effects that animate these miniature narratives. Water ripples and splashes as a trout pulls desperately against the fisherman's line. A young girl, unhappy in love, relentlessly turns the spinning wheel, around and around. Pursued by a supernatural figure of death, a horse carrying a father and son gallops wildly through the night. These are just a few of the almost magical soundscapes evoked by Schubert's Lieder.
Von Otter will be singing these songs in orchestral arrangements by Berlioz, Britten, Reger, and Webern. It is relatively rare in our time for a major classical composer to arrange another composer's work, but during the 19th century, in particular, arrangements were a very popular form of musical tribute. In these orchestrations the composers have, in a sense, translated Schubert's picturesque music by adding the Technicolor capabilities of the full orchestra.
"Schubert's songs lend themselves very well to orchestration," observes von Otter, whose 2004 recording of orchestrated Lieder won the Grammy Award for the Best Classical Vocal Performance category. "Now, I almost miss the orchestral version when I go back to piano," she says, adding, "but don't tell my pianist that!"
The singer admits that she has to make adjustments for the larger forces involved. "One needs to add a few pounds of heft to the voice to be heard through the orchestra," she says. "And the concert hall tends to be bigger, too." The mezzo-soprano says that while Berlioz, Britten, Reger, and Webern did a wonderful job of translating the piano part to other instruments, there are moments when "they got a bit carried away and added too much instrumental muscle, so usually there is a bit of tidying up that has to be done at the first rehearsal : brass, timpani, string section size : to help the singer come through."
Anne Sofie von Otter's busy season includes recitals as well as opera engagements in Vienna, Frankfurt, and Barcelona, where she sings with Plšcido Domingo. Recently, she has expanded her musical horizons by collaborating with pop singer Elvis Costello, as well as with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. She is especially looking forward to reuniting with Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert, who conducts the program.
Gilbert and von Otter got to know one another during his years on the podium in Stockholm when, he says, he discovered that the mezzo-soprano is a perfectionist. "But she's actually one of those perfectionists who manages to 'get there.' Her command of language and her ability to really make the words sing is just fabulous."
The conductor counts von Otter as one of the best singers around today: "I think she's the ideal combination of vocal perfection and expressive, communicative ability. I know that she will bring these Schubert songs to life in a wonderful way."
For von Otter, to sing these six masterpieces is to enter the composer's unique world of sound and poetry. "Schubert's music is a universe in itself, fascinating to explore. One wonders, incidentally, how on earth he found the time to write all those songs, all that music."
Johanna Keller is founding director of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.