In music, there is no wider gulf than that between simply expressive and simply dull; any effective illusion of simplicity and directness in musical performance conceals significant skill. Which is why the most remarkable thing about Friday’s Celebrity Series recital by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Angela Hewitt was how much attention the pair could command while seeming to be doing little more than just singing and playing.
The two share similar musical temperaments, polished and precise without being precious or severe: unassuming refinement. In songs by Ludwig van Beethoven, von Otter integrated the scores’ quirks into finely sketched conceptions, over Hewitt’s scrupulously even touch. The set also illustrated the program’s way with sly connections: the ending of “In questa tomba oscura,” for instance, a flurry of soft stings, was echoed in the more comedic bite of Beethoven’s setting of the famous “Song of the Flea” from Goethe’s “Faust.”
Groups of songs by Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms were each introduced — and interpretively presaged — by solo numbers from Hewitt. The long string of melody, the perpetual burble of arpeggiation, and the gently prodding bass of Schubert’s G-flat major Impromptu (Op. 90, No. 3) were unfailingly delineated, a deep-focus approach that continued in the songs; “Im Abdendrot,” in particular, maintained clear, balanced stillness with uncanny control. Brahms’s Op. 117, No. 1 Intermezzo, in turn, its melody prominently concealed within accompaniment above and below, primed the emphasis on the song’s rich, poignant elusiveness; the serenely expectant “Ruhe, Süssliebchen” was the beneficiary of especially gorgeous singing and playing.
The second half turned from German to French. In melodies by Reynaldo Hahn and Gabriel Fauré (as well as another Hewitt solo, the “Idylle” from Emmanuel Chabrier’s “Pièces pittoresques”), von Otter’s acuity and Hewitt’s pearly exactness produced a classicized elegance, structure and rhythm on equal footing with color and ambience. Claude Debussy’s “Trois chansons de Bilitis” tipped into more atmospheric territory, hypnotically ravishing; six songs by Cécile Chaminade called forth more forward artifice. But apart from a few flashier songs (and Hewitt’s nimble performance of Chabrier’s scintillatingly showy “Bourrée fantasque”), the program forwent fireworks for music revealing its sublimity in meticulous performance.
Encores were 1920s and ’30s pop: Jean Lenoir’s “Parlez-moi d’amour,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” and a rarity, Carl Hohengarten, William Roettger, and Paul Small’s “Good Night (I’ll See You in the Morning).” It was deft, easygoing, fun. That’s how they made it seem, anyway.
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Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.