NEW YORK — Every generation has its master songwriters. In a Nov. 10 concert at Kaufmann Concert Hall at the 92nd Street Y, string quartet Brooklyn Rider and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter connected great songwriters from two centuries apart: Franz Schubert and Rufus Wainwright.
In fact, there was a third composer involved in the program, Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen, who was presenting the New York premieres of several of his arrangements of Schubert and Wainwright works originally for voice and piano. The only piece played in its original instrumentation was Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, Death and the Maiden. And even that was performed in a distinctive manner.
Von Otter introduced the string quartet by singing Schubert’s Lied “Death and the Maiden.” She retreated upstage to sit during the work’s first movement, and then returned to her music stand before each subsequent movement to sing Jacobsen’s arrangement of a song from Schubert’s Winterreise.
Purists might be offended at such a “disruption” of a quartet’s dramatic development. However, in Schubert’s own time, and long after, it would have been considered completely normal to break a multi-movement work into parts or to program only a few extracts from a song cycle. That said, Brooklyn Rider’s programming was a far cry from that turn-of-the-century pastiche approach that must have seemed like a classical-music version of vaudeville. On the contrary, this concert’s interspersing of songs and quartet movements did not feel at all disjointed or random but convincingly coherent.
The success of this musical collage lay partly in the choice of Lieder. Von Otter followed the second movement with “Der Wegweiser” (“The Sign Post”). Wilhelm Müller’s poem deals with desolation and a sense of being lost, a logical lead-in to the somber and meditative opening theme of the quartet’s second-movement variations. Even for those listeners not following the libretto, the slow and simple tune of “Der Wegweiser” and its homophonic accompaniment blended stylistically with the Andante con moto.
The deeply sorrowful “Die Nebensonnen” (“The False Suns”) likewise helped to emphasize the ironic darkness of the quartet’s third-movement scherzo that followed. And “Einsamkeit” (“Solitude”) had a spookiness that made the final Presto explode in its contrasting colors. In that last pairing, Jacobsen’s extraordinary work as an arranger contributed to the effect: He not only channeled Schubert’s techniques in string-quartet voicing but also took advantage of available textures such as tremolo and spiccato to give layers to the eerie texture of the song.
The Schubert quartet opened with less aggression in the Allegro than is common; it grew somewhat more fiery yet still graceful in the development. The second movement, its theme based on the Lied heard a few minutes before, was more perfect than expressive at first; with the rousing third variation it came to life, not only with greater energy but with intricately sculpted phrasing.
The members of Brooklyn Rider — violinists Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas — dressed casually and played while standing, except Nicolas, who sat on a dais. The four have a closely matched sound and communicate well with each other. For all the Schubert selections, Gandelsman played first violin. His sound was often stressed, which seemed to be the result of a tight bowing arm and left hand (the latter leading to significant intonation problems). He finally loosened up for the spectacular Presto finale, in which the dotted rhythms galloped to the precipice yet never flew out of control.
Singing Schubert Lieder seems as natural as breathing for von Otter. The power of her voice is more subdued than it was in her prime, now that she is 68, but her musicianship remains unerring. Onstage, she never seemed to forget that these songs were conceived on a very small scale, to be sung in the Schubertiade house concerts. Her declamation of the poetry was precise yet understated, letting Müller’s imagery speak for itself.
She was less successful with the two groups of Wainwright songs, the Trois Valses Anglaises and three songs from his 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. The nature of the problem was difficult to pinpoint. Her sung English diction was superb, yet somehow she was unable to project it, causing her voice to be swallowed up by Jacobsen’s complicated arrangements of the accompaniment in both sets.
When Wainwright composes for his own piano playing, he tends to become over-enthusiastic, making the accompaniment so difficult that he struggles to get through it live. The mad, endless triplets flowing under “Who Are You, New York?” is a prime example. When Wainwright sings it, he fairly screams the line “Saw you in Madison Square Garden / Screaming” over the pianistic chaos. Jacobsen reveled in the challenge of transcribing every note, which showed off his quartet but worked to von Otter’s disadvantage: She was nearly inaudible. Still, what could be heard was always musical and sung with a thorough understanding of the lyrics, from the petty tantrum of the song “Give Me What I Want” to the aching melancholy of “Sad with What I Have.”
It was a treat to hear the Trois Valses Anglaises, which Wainwright has not yet recorded himself. The first waltz, “Watching the Monarchs,” takes the butterfly’s migration as a metaphor for aging. With bowed harmonics and swooping gestures, Jacobsen captured the sense of flight. “Friend in Common” uses gentle syncopation, and von Otter charmed with sly wit. She tapped into her sultry lower register for “Listen to the Queen,” which was punctuated by cleverly placed pizzicatos from her devoted back-up band.
The encore, another Jacobsen arrangement, was a gloriously lonesome rendition of Schubert’s “Im Abendrot,” the best singing von Otter did all evening.