[9 December 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Anne Sofie von Otter enjoys straying from her classical roots. Not that the Swedish mezzo-soprano wants to thumb her nose at tradition or make quick cash, she just seems perfectly content to sing sappy love ballads with the likes of Elvis Costello, only because she enjoys it. Whether these pop projects are taken seriously by staunch followers of classical music just doesn’t concern her. Besides, it’s not like opera stars are presented with opportunities to break from routine on a regular basis. For someone like Ann Sofie von Otter, who is kinda-sorta a household name, they go out looking for the opportunities.
In pianist Brad Mehldau von Otter has found a musical partner who is not a dangerous stretch from the classical world. Primarily known for his work with his various jazz trios, Mehldau has dipped into the third stream plenty of times. Most notably on his albums Live in Tokyo and Elegiac Cycle will you find more elements musically in common with the lyrical, classical leanings of Keith Jarrett than Bill Evans’ nightclub cool. Even the opera collaboration is nothing new to him, as his album Love Sublime with Renee Fleming suggests. So when von Otter and Mehldau decided to team up for a combination of singer-songwriter love song standards, standing opposite of seven Mehldau originals set to the poetry of Sara Teasdale, all of the elements seem to be in place: classical-lite piano, soaring mezzo-soprano, and nearly 80 minutes of 20th century romance spread over two CDs.
The artistic success of the double album Love Songs is about as uneven as the source material at hand. For one thing, the two sides are very different from one another. The first one, the seven Mehldau originals set to Teasdale’s poems, is the closest this program gets to classical music. These movements have much going for them with Mehldau’s chord blocks, von Otter’s expressive vibrato, and a heavy dose of dynamics. For these very same reasons, the first part of this album is a bit of a stressful listen. The rubato can get the better of both of them at times, and the text tends to get lost in the emoting. This is not to say they are mismatched musicians, but rather they were working towards a chemistry that got buried in the throes of professional musicianship.
Disc two is the far more natural program. This is where Brad Mehldau and Anne Sofie von Otter pick and choose romantic vignettes of the songbook variety. With no other theme to obey than just “love songs,” a diverse set naturally follows. Richard Rodgers’ “Something Good” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” share space with Joni Mitchell’s “Marcie,” the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and a smattering of French songs that show off the well-rounder skills of both musicians. The dynamics are much more even keel this time around and von Otter sits in a comfortable pocket throughout. Sure, “Blackbird” can stand to be a little bit less expressive at certain points, but it’s still hard to screw up a Beatles tune. Not that’s it’s never been done before…
Neither Anne Sofie von Otter nor Brad Mehldau betray their musical identities on Love Songs, but they aren’t exactly kicking ass and taking names either. The first CD has wonderful things happening inside of it, for sure, but there are performance quirks that stand in the way of many an average listener excavating all that it has to offer. The second CD goes down easy, despite the obscure origins of over half the tunes. It’s a great idea trapped inside a none-too-shabby album, waiting for interpretive ease and development.