At Le Poisson Rouge, Anne Sofie von Otter and Angela Hewitt

2015-01-23 / New York Times / James R. Oestreich

Intimate, Casual and Classical, in a Club Setting

“It’s wonderful to be here in the Red Fish,” the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter said on Wednesday evening. And it was wonderful to have her there.

Le Poisson Rouge, an intimate, informal Greenwich Village club, has carved out an honorable niche in the New York classical music scene, and is valued as much for its innovations in concert etiquette and settings as for its individual programs. And increasingly, it has managed to sprinkle its typically modest or offbeat fare with appearances by major international stars.

So it was that Ms. von Otter took the stage on Wednesday for a concert lasting a little more than an hour with the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt. Ms. von Otter sang groups of songs by Beethoven, Debussy and Cécile Chaminade, and added an unscheduled number by Liszt and three encores.

Ms. Hewitt, who is best known for her solo performances of Bach, Couperin and the like, proved a brilliant collaborator, playing off Ms. von Otter’s every vocal and physical gesture. Ms. Hewitt also punctuated the evening with piano works by Liszt (“Petrarch Sonnet No. 123”) and Chabrier (the oddly bouncy “Idylle” from “10 Pièces Pittoresques” and the virtuosic “Bourrée Fantasque”).

Not surprisingly, Ms. von Otter, at 59, has lost some of her former vocal luster and body, especially in her high register (though you hesitate to make categorical judgments, since she also had rough patches earlier in her career). But she compensates magnificently with sheer force of artistry and personality.

And where appropriate, humor. Beethoven’s “Es War Einmal ein König” (“There Was Once a King”) set her to scratching and twitching in a manner that, in the absence of program notes or texts, undoubtedly mystified many in the audience until she explained afterward that a flea was centrally involved.

Ms. von Otter wisely chose repertory that rewarded subtlety rather than force. The six Chaminade songs were a particular revelation: no profundity but everywhere charm and intelligence. As encores Ms. von Otter sang two butterfly songs: “Der Schmetterling” by Schubert and “Butterfly Wings” by ABBA’s Bjorn and Benny. The evening ended with “Smile,” a tune by Charlie Chaplin with lyrics that came later, in a melting performance on the parts of both Ms. von Otter and Ms. Hewitt.

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