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It was a classic case of false pretences. The bait was a programme of extracts from the Great American Songbook sung by Anne Sofie von Otter and Peter Mattei, accompanied by Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra: a golden opportunity, you might have thought, to apply sophisticated polish to Bernstein, Weill, Jerome Kern and others.
But it turned out to be an evening of slavish imitation of popular singers who do this style so much better. As an opener, Mattei hollered his way through “New York, New York”, a ball of energy in a crumpled dinner jacket. Von Otter, still a passable imitation of the slinky blonde in a black dress, piled on the syrup in Kern’s “Folks who Live on the Hill”. The programme book noted that even the sophisticated American song is always tinged with a sentimental note. Von Otter, who can sing on consonants and nuzzle words at the end of a phrase to a juddering vibrato like the best cabaret artist, went beyond sentiment to schmaltz.
Worst was the crude echo- chamber amplification. (Why do opera singers need mikes? The singers most of these songs were written for managed without.) Ironically, a good third of the lyrics got lost in sonic saturation. The orchestra too was amped up so that high- voltage excerpts from Bernstein’s On the Town featured acrid first violins, blaring brass and no inner voices. Session musicians could have produced the same effect.
Two swinging Swedes and a hip conductor just having fun, perhaps. But this music deserves better and if I were Harding, I wouldn’t want this shoddy concert on my CV. Crushed by 50 minutes of synthetic decibels, I fled at the interval to save my eardrums.
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