Colin Davis New York Philharmonic

Les Francs-juges – Overture
La Damnation de Faust – Que l’air est étouffant! … Autre fois un roi de Thulé
Les nuits d’été – Villanelle
Les Troyens – Ah! Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cité
Rakastava, Op.14
Kaiutar, Op.72/4
På verandan vid havet, Op.38/2
Demanten på marssnön, Op.36/6
Svarta Rosor, Op.36/1
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

New York Philharmonic
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 24 April, 2004
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

In the final instalment of the New York Philharmonic’s two-season Berlioz bicentennial celebration, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter teamed up with Sir Colin Davis to serve up a feast of songs and Dido’s heartbreaking “Ah! Je vais mourir” from the composer’s epic opera, Les Troyens.

The program opened with an energetic performance of the Overture, Les Francs-juges, which perfectly captured Berlioz’s vitality and spirit. The Philharmonic brass sounded especially commanding at the opening, and the famous swing-along melody that comes later was rendered with appropriate exuberance. This 12-minute overture is an odd sort of piece – Berlioz’s unique, eclectic sense of musical logic is evident throughout – but it embodies an appealing, rousing character that perfectly suited the celebratory nature of the occasion.

The rest of the Berlioz on the program consisted of three pieces for voice and orchestra. With Anne Sofie von Otter’s rich, even-toned singing and Sir Colin Davis’s brilliant conducting, this part of the concert was tremendously moving. Otter went to the heart of each setting. The first aria (or ‘Chanson gothique’ as Berlioz aptly characterised it) was “Le Roi de Thulé” from La Damnation de Faust, which comes near the beginning of the work’s Third Part and represents Berlioz’s final revision of the aria he had produced in 1828 in two versions – one for voice and piano, the other for soprano and orchestra. At this point in the story, Méphistophélès has already arranged for Marguérite to meet and fall in love with Faust. Marguérite, however, is not aware of these machinations when she sings this ballad, musing on a curious dream she has had. Anne Sofie von Otter’s sang with a rapt simplicity that perfectly recreated the mediaeval spirit of the piece.

Otter was originally scheduled to sing Berlioz’s rarely performed Zaïde, but she substituted “Villanelle”, a light, teasing piece from the song-cycle Les nuits d’été, which sounded especially bright and luminous as the middle item. Colin Davis coaxed wonderful sonorities from the Philharmonic players during this deceptively simple piece, with its stanza-to-stanza changes in scoring and harmony. The violas and cellos were particularly fine as they responded to and imitated the singer’s voice in the line “Le printemps est venu”, and the bassoon’s counterpoint under the song’s final phrase was subtle yet very effective.

“Ah! Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cité” is sung by Dido, the Queen of Carthage, near the end of Les Troyens. In this recitative and aria, Dido articulates her fate and privately bids farewell to the “proud city” she has governed. As Dido, Otter was intense and dramatically convincing, investing every phrase with the emotional power it deserved.

The second half of the program was devoted to Sibelius and began with Rakastava, a three-movement suite for string orchestra with the unusual addition of timpani and triangle. Originally composed as an a cappella choral work based on texts from the Kanteletar, a collection of Finnish folk poems, the piece evolved into an instrumental work with no programmatic references beyond the titles of the three movements: The Love; The Party of the Beloved; Good Evening … Farewell. Davis and the orchestra delivered an affecting performance of this rarity.

Otter then shone brilliantly again as she delivered wonderfully subtle, powerful and passionate readings of four Sibelius songs. The texts of all the songs except Kaiutar are in Swedish, and Otter seemed to take special delight and in offering up those melancholy pieces in her native language, especially Svarta Rosor (Black Roses), one of Sibelius’s best and most beloved songs.

Otter then treated the audience to another Berlioz piece, “L’île inconnue” from Les nuits d’été, as an encore. As was the case with all the other works she performed, song and performance were in complete harmony. In this case the light, flirtatious mood of the piece was enhanced by the insouciant charm of Otter’s interpretation.

Sir Colin Davis closed with an energetic and finely shaped reading of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. From the drumbeat of the opening to the dissonant crescendo at the end, Davis led the players in a compelling account that displayed his complete mastery of the many tempo and character changes in this single-movement piece. This was a very fine performance in every respect, and served as a fitting climax to what was altogether a superb concert.

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