CLASSICAL MUSIC Anne Sofie von Otter Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Most singers keep back their repertoire of funny accents for the encores, where a dash of Mummerset goes down well in folksong arrangements. Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter's Wigmore Hall recital on Friday began with dialects, heard in Five British Folksongs by Percy Grainger. It was an unusual move, acknowledged implicitly in her own platform prologue delivered by way of an explanation before the music began. Yet it worked. The songs were carefully characterised in a way that made each one of them the story of a uniquely personal situation.

Whether the replacement of the customary piano accompaniment by the Brodsky String Quartet was such an unqualified success could be open to question. There were certainly gains in the depth of resonance obtained, but the effect, at times, was of a voice entrapped in string tone. It is a lovely voice, but not penetrating. A distinct lack of consonants meant that the words themselves, dialect or otherwise, were not always easily understood.

Of course, the accompaniment shares the weight of expression in songs like these, and the Brodsky Quartet played with warmth and intelligence. To Britten's early Three Divertimenti of 1933 they brought a no less polished approach, violist Paul Cassidy playing his high solo in the spooky middle section of the March on the actual instrument once owned by the composer. This is a prescient work, the published output already prefigured in the building-up of form from agile, protean fragments of tune. The Waltz second movement sounded a gem among Britten's many fine essays in this genre.

The quartet also delivered a sharply focused account of Stravinsky's rarely heard yet entirely typical Concertino. But the evening's most substantial offerings were two commissions from living composers of very different aims and attitudes. Elvis Costello's Three Distracted Women were part concert aria, part reflection on the 17th-century consort song. The second, "Spread Darkly My Angel", about a bored elderly woman disposing of her young lover, seemed appropriately tinged with Jacobean cadences; in "Spiteful Dancer", a variety entertainer dealt with a jealous understudy; while the woman in "April in Orbit" reflected on an empty life.

If Costello's aim was to lead the listener via words and music to some kind of dramatic punch-line, the exotic morning song, Island Dreaming, by the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe was from beginning to end a near-wordless rhapsody on the morning star and the waking of the day. The drifting voice, full of mezzo colour above a hypnotic web of instrumental patterns, conveyed a mood of quietly natural ecstasy. At one point, an episode of trios and duets between singer, viola and cello offered a reflective pause for thought. Yet the flow remained seamless, painting a continuum of experience to be enjoyed, without thought, through the senses and the feelings.

Turning to the remains of the day, Von Otter concluded her recital with Respighi's Shelley setting, Il Tramonto (The Sunset). Naturally, there were encores. Most affecting was William Stenhammar's Adagio. But John Woolrich's The Devil and the Ploughman received most laughs - funny accents, scolding wife and all.

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