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Elusive Otters - Anne Sofie von Otter with the NZSO

Elusive Otters

Anne Sofie von Otter with the NZSO
Thursday 15 March
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

Among the many qualities one looks for in an artist is generosity: a sense that giving, and giving fully, is important to them, is part of their artistic make up.

That quality wasn't quite in evidence, though, in this New Zealand Festival performance from the renowned mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Her singing took up just the first half of the night, some half a dozen songs, with the post-interval element comprising the relatively unknown Alexander Zemlinsky's The Mermaid.

It's not that von Otter sang badly. On the contrary, she is a highly accomplished artist, one of whose musicality and eschewing of unnecessary frills and showing-off are to be applauded. Her singing was thoughtful, delicate, often beautiful, particularly in her portrayal of Gretchen at the spinning wheel. Every word and note was right in place, and her communication was clear and direct.

But she doesn't have one of those voices that stupefies, so for the full effect, you need to get a sense of her building up a character, displaying versatility, or something else that shows off her qualities to the maximum. Half a dozen songs doesn't cut it, especially since at least one, Die Forelle, lacked the verve and humour that other artists have found in it. After the concert, members of the audience could be heard complaining about having been shortchanged, and they were right to wonder how such a much-touted international performer could spend so little time on stage.

As the conductor, Benjamin Northey, acknowledged, not everyone stuck around for the second half. But those who did were well rewarded, as Zemlinsky's work, though occasionally slightly overblown (in the manner of the film scores whose writers he inspired), was stirring, vibrant stuff, a wonderful picture-painting of love, cruelty and sacrifice. And Northey extracted from the NZSO a delightful sound: balanced, unfussy but at the same time full-bodied. Not all the NZSO's guest conductors convince, but he is one I would happily hear again soon.

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