The repertoire in Anne Sofie von Otter’s recital in Bodø Cathedral this Saturday was truly a mixed bag. Ranging 350-odd years, from the 1650s all the way up until the very present day, spanning four countries and as many languages, and joined by two accompanists – Mats Bergström and Svante Henryson – there was really no unifying theme to the recital. Not that it necessarily needed one, or that we really minded.

© Nordland Music Festival
© Nordland Music Festival

Because Saturday’s recital was above all a testament to von Otter’s unique ability to tell stories through music and to convey emotions, her versatility and command of an almost dizzying array of styles; from early Baroque to contemporary, from classical to popular music. The recital started out with a Swedish section, three songs ranging from the perfectly pleasant En positivvisa (“A Barrel-Organ Song”) by Wilhelm Stenhammar to the meditative calm of Hugo Alfvén’s Skogen sover (“The Forest Sleeps”), made even more effective and intimate by using a guitar and cello instead of a piano. This sense of intimacy was kept throughout the concert, and it somehow felt less formal than your standard “piano and singer” recital.

The piece that followed was perhaps the most uneven of the whole recital: the première of Svante Henryson’s Secret Love Songs, a collection of four songs set to anonymous declarations of love found on the internet. The idiom of these songs was clearly more oriented towards popular music, with both the cello and von Otter using amplification, but in general, they worked. The first two songs were by far the weakest, with awkward melodies and generally rather awkward texts too. Still, the last two songs more than made up for the weaknesses of the first two. Especially the third song, “Flickan som aldrig smutser ned sig i sandlådan” (“The Girl Who Never Gets Herself Dirty in the Sandbox”), was truly remarkable, and was written in Swedish, which seems to be a language Henryson is more comfortable setting to music.

The following four songs by de Falla again showed von Otter’s way with words and ability to create moods. Especially effective was the lullaby Nana, with its spellbindingly silent singing. The fact she was accompanied on the guitar and not the piano undoubtedly lent the songs a more Spanish flavour, and also helped underline the intimacy of the songs, especially Nana. In general, the guitar (and occasional cello) arrangements (written by Mats Bergström) of the songs in this recital worked very well. Not only the Spanish songs – although the guitar definitely sounded the most “natural”, given their Spanish folk song roots – but also the Swedish songs, which took on a very different, more intimate quality than they usually have in their piano and singer only version. It was more like a little get-together than a serious, formal recital.

Perhaps the best display of von Otter’s stylistic versatility came with the last three songs, all French chansons from the middle of the last century – a point made especially well since these songs came directly after the early French Baroque Vos mépris chaque jour. First an earnest version of Barbara’s Göttingen, then a rather restrained Padam, padam, radically different from the more famous Edith Piaf version, but nevertheless a very interesting take on a very well-known song. The final song, Charles Trenet’s Boum! was a true exercise in delightfulness, with von Otter, Bergström and Henryson clearly having what seemed like an incredible amount of fun on stage, delighting in both the song and the charmingly French lyrics. As an encore, the group played Cello Song by the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. A subdued, calm end to the concert, and showed yet again how von Otter also masters more popular styles.

Anne Sofie von Otter’s ability to take a group of seemingly unconnected songs and form them into a coherent recital through her gift of communication and musical storytelling is truly astounding. Saturday’s recital was a journey through generally pretty unknown territory, with von Otter’s obviously great love for this music and her honest, emotional delivery as our guide. It is a journey I would not mind taking again.

*****