Song recitals and “bums in seats” (to use the technical term) are not frequently two things that go together, even with the most stellar of attractions, so it was perhaps not surprising to see that Durham could only muster a half-full house at the Reynolds Industries Theater for the exceptional Duke Performances concert offered by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Brad Mehldau (they were drawing against women’s basketball and the Oscar broadcast). The fact that the program seemingly fell between two chairs (classical music and jazz) may also have dissuaded fans of each. In fact, a large portion of the concert could have been characterized as one of the best classical events you would ever hear.

Von Otter, a native of Stockholm, is now in her mid-fifties, and though she is one of the most successful of operatic stars, her delivery has a lightness and transparency, a naturalness, a youthfulness, that listeners do not often associate with the operatic stage. She began the recital with seven Scandinavian songs of the late Romantic (Grieg, Peterson-Berger, Stenhammar, and Sibelius) which must be unfamiliar to even the most diehard lieder-lover, and which were for me the best works on the program. Peterson-Bergers’s “Som stjärnorna på; himmelen” (Like the stars in the sky) mourning a beloved’s death, at his graveside, was stunningly simple and elegiac. Stenhammar’s “I lönnens skymning” (In the maple’s shade), with similar subject, was another knife straight to the heart. Von Otter’s partner at the keyboard was impeccably in tune with all of her gestures, and his playing brought out, clearly and distinctly, all of the meaning in the composers’ writing for the piano in these songs.

After the first set, Von Otter left the stage, and listeners were treated to two solo works by Brahms – the Intermezzo, Op. 76, No. 4, in B-flat, and the Capriccio, Op. 116, No. 3, in G minor. Mehldau seemed completely at ease in the former, with an admirable flexibility of rubato, and absolute control of every detail of the rise and fall of the inner voices. He did not seem quite as much at home in the Capriccio.

Perhaps it was unfair to Brahms to place his lieder (“Juchhe!,” “Wir wandelten,” and “Unbewegte laue Luft”) after the later Scandinavian works, for to my ears they suffered by comparison – less light, less air, less interest in the harmonies and figuration. Particularly unsuccessful was Brahms’s response to the eroticism of the third text. Altogether more worldly were the two Strauss songs (“Die Nacht, Nichts”) which closed the half.

Those who might have expected a jazz idiom for the set of Love Songs by Mehldau which opened the second half were certainly disappointed, for these were devoid of jazzy harmonies and snappy rhythms. We heard the five songs setting poems by American Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) (the CD adds two more, with poems by Larking and cummings – presumably we did not hear these because the lyrics are not in the public domain). Von Otter sounds completely at home in American English, and the parts Mehldau wrote for her were painted with such broad strokes that she seemed more free to open up on the louder dynamics and to offer hushed pianos at the other end of the scale.

The concluding portion of the concert offered popular songs in jazz settings, including music by Michel Legrand (“The windmills of your mind,” but sung in French), two songs by Jobim (“Insensatez,” sung in English, and “Sabiá,” sung in a Portuguese that was less convincing than the many other languages Otter essayed), and McCartney’s “Blackbird,” with a wonderful improvisation by Mehldau over the seemingly spare materials of the original song. The performers were called back for two encores – a rather depressing waltz (for Mehldau,”serious” and “fun” do not go together), and a simply perfect “Something Good” by Rodgers.