EIF: Fidelio & Anne Sofie von Otter

Usher Hall & Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

One of Scotland’s main promoters of chamber music once told a sceptical me that singers were a harder sell than instrumentalists. My dubiety was, admittedly, based on the star names that appear in the Edinburgh Festival’s Queen’s Hall series, and the appearance of Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter certainly produced the first full house the venue has seen this year.

That audience undoubtedly went home happy to judge by the ovation she received after the Schubert encore. That was the only occasion in which all the musicians involved – pianist Christoph Berner and string quartet Quatuor Van Kuijk – performed together, but which required von Otter to recite rather than sing.

It was a somewhat odd conclusion to a brief recital that bracketed a pocket “Shubertiad” with songs by Rufus Wainwright. That combination may have made more sense with originally advertised string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who were apparently unable to travel to Edinburgh and yet are joining the singer in Kilkenny and Copenhagen over the next few days. As it was, the two trios of Wainwrights were accompanied by piano, as were von Otter’s four Schubert songs, interspersed with the four movements of the Death and the Maiden quartet, played by Quatuor Van Kuijk.

Whether the imaginative programming served the material is a matter of taste. Wainwright’s unpublished Trois Valses Anglaises are a fine addition to von Otter’s “pop” repertoire, sitting nicely alongside the Brian Wilson songs she recorded with Elvis Costello some years ago. Employing small slides in pitch, she uses a different tone for these than she employs on “classic” art songs, with some show tune intonation, specifically reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George here.

The three Songs for Lulu that followed the Schubert are from Wainwright’s 2010 album and without his own distinctive voice revealed older influences, Sad With What I Have kin to Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, and Who Are You New York? nodding to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ strutting hymn to The Big Apple.

Von Otter’s diction in German is crisper than her English, truth to tell, as her Schubert songs, Death and the Maiden and three from Winterreise, demonstrated. The hymn-like simplicity of Die Nebensonnen was the most suited to her mezzo, while Der Wegweiser and Einsamkeit cry out darker hues.

The string players sounded particularly fine on the Scherzo and Presto Finale of the Death and the Maiden quartet. Earlier leader Nicolas Van Kuijk and cellist Anthony Kondo had been over-dominant in the group’s balance.

The singer turned stage manager for some of the shepherding of her colleagues in the lunchtime recital just as home-town hero Sir Donald Runnicles adopted that role for the curtain call at the concert performance of Fidelio in the Usher Hall later in the day.

Sir Donald Runnicles conducts this concert performance of Beethoven’s only opera, telling a moving story of a wife’s devotion and the resilience of human nature. Usher Hall, Edinburgh.

Using Sir David Pountney’s added English narration, delivered by Sir Willard White, the luxury cast of soloists included a superb Leonore from Emma Bell, who stepped in to replace Jennifer Davis. Like Gunther Groissbock’s glorious Rocco, she was entirely “off the book”, but that was not true of everyone, with Kim-Lillian Strebel, as Marzelline, turning to the score at one point and Markus Bruck reading the music throughout.

Terrifically well sung by the Philharmonia Voices chorus as well as the principals, and played by the Philharmonia Orchestra in the last appearance of its busy Festival residency, this Fidelio was musically outstanding, and rapturously received for that. Runnicles was in his element.

However, it cannot go down as a classic in the recent history of EIF operas-in-concert. Although some of the cast, notably Groissbock, seemed to be trying to guide things, it lacked some directorial shape, with Willard White poorly placed behind his narrator’s desk and the arias and ensembles delivered in a parade-ground line across the stage. Fidelio is fantastic music, but it needs a bit of help to be drama.

Keith Bruce

Pictures by Andrew Perry