Anne Sofie von Otter & Brooklyn Rider: So Many Things

Had someone told me my favourite selections on this collaboration between renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the always adventurous string quartet Brooklyn Rider (violinists Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas) would be covers of songs by Kate Bush and Sting, I would have had my doubts, especially when the release also includes material by Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, and John Adams, among others. One shouldn't necessarily give too much weight to the detail, however: like all great popular songs, those by Bush and Sting connect with the listener immediately, in no small part for being so alluringly melodic. Yet all of the material featured on So Many Things is of the highest quality, even if some of it establishes that connection more quickly.

Certainly the collaborators, in terms of their approach to performance, make little distinction between the formal classical pieces and those by innovative popular composers, and broach all of the material with an equal degree of respect and care. To that end, we concur with von Otter's liner note statement, “I don't see them as two worlds at all, but just plain old good, interesting, attractive music that moves and inspires me.” In like spirit, Brooklyn Rider characterizes the recording as “a constellation of diverse songs and compositions whose only prerequisite for inclusion was that the music touched an emotional chord for us collectively.”

Bush's “Pi” captivates from the first moment with its sinuous melodic lines and insistent rhythmic propulsion, and the manner by which von Otter delivers her vocal with a slow gracefulness meshes perfectly with the quartet's simpatico accompaniment. Surprising though it might sound, the partners achieve an effect close to sublime, an especially interesting accomplishment when one considers Bush's lyrics in places are nothing more than pi-related numbers. Anders Hillborg's “Kväll” is distinguished by a beautifully calibrated vocal von Otter gives to the Swedish composer's plaintive ballad, while Elvis Costello's “Speak Darkly, My Angel” (originally written for von Otter and The Brodsky Quartet) finds the songwriter in a nakedly expressive ballad mode that will be familiar to Costello devotees. Pianist Brad Mehldau, represented here by “Love Sublime,” will be a familiar name to von Otter's followers for having collaborated with her on 2010's Love Songs album. Two of Björk's songs are included on the hour-long release, the quietly ominous “Cover Me” and haunting “Hunter,” and though the collaborators' versions are credible, Björk's vocalizing on the originals is so distinctive they're hard to match.

Somewhat reminiscent of Nixon in China's aria “This is Prophetic,” Doctor Atomic's “Am I In Your Light?” retains its contemplative aura as it advances measuredly through its many modulations, von Otter here donning a slightly more operatic tone in her delivery. In featuring three poems, a long narrative one by Joyce Carol Oates and two by C.F. Cavaly, Muhly's “So Many Things” is as textually rich as it is musically, the latter evidenced by the twelve-minute setting's persistently explorative, shape-shifting design. Caroline Shaw composed “Cant voi l'aube,” a lovely aubade (morning song) sung in French, expressly for the project, as did Brooklyn Rider's Jacobsen, who in his spirited paean to Brooklyn (and a typical Brooklyn diner), “For Sixty Cents,” drew for inspiration from the writings of Lydia Davis.

Co-composed by Sting and Robert Mathes, “Practical Arrangement,” which originally appeared on Sting's 2013 album The Last Ship, is elevated by an understated string arrangement and hushed vocal whose sober delivery consequently intensifies its emotional impact. In enunciating a supplicating line such as “And you could learn to love me, given time” with such restraint, the heartache of the lyrics packs an emotional punch that lifts this quietly majestic performance above others. Strong also is Rufus Wainwright's “Les feux d'artifice t'appellent,” which closes the album with a beautifully pitched tone poem of ravishingly Debussy-esque character.

So Many Things isn't the first time the string quartet has collaborated with others—guitarist Bill Frisell, Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and banjo player Béla Fleck are among those with whom Brooklyn Rider has partnered—but it does stand out for having paired the group with one of the world's foremost classical singers. As consistently fine as the performances are, those of the songs by Bush, Sting, Hillborg, and Wainwright left the strongest impression on this listener. That being said, the stirring interpretations the collaborators bring to all of the settings, regardless of whether the composers are associated with the pop or classical fields, makes So Many Things an exceptionally special outing and a superb addition to the artists' respective discographies.

December 2016