‘Passion and Despair’: A Promising First Wigmore Hall Recital from Lise Davidsen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rosenblatt Recital – Lise Davidsen (soprano): Grieg, Cherubini, Richard Strauss, Verdi, Giordano, Mascagni, Sibelius, Weber and Wagner: James Baillieu (piano), Wigmore Hall, London. 9.5.2017. (JPr)

LISE DAVIDSEN 5471 - photo credit Jonathan Rose
Lise Davidsen (soprano) & James Baillieu (piano) (c) Jonathan Rose

Grieg – ‘Gruss’ Op.48 No.1; ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ Op.48 No.2; ‘Zur Rosenzeit’ Op.48 No.5; ‘Ein Traum’ Op.48 No.6; ‘En svane’ Op.25 No.2
Cherubini – ‘Dei tuoi figli la madre’ (Médée)
Richard Strauss – ‘Zueignung’ Op.10 No.1; ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ Op.27 No.1; ‘Morgen’ Op.27 No.4; ‘Cäcilie’ Op.27 No.2
Verdi – ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ (Un ballo in maschera)
Giordano – ‘La mamma morta’ (Andrea Chénier)
Mascagni – ‘Voi lo sapete’ (Cavalleria rusticana)
Sibelius – ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Reed, reed, whisper) Op.36 No.4; ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black roses) Op.36 No.1; ‘Våren flyktar hastigt’ (Spring is swift to fly away) Op.13 No.4; ‘Var det en dröm?’ (Was it a dream?) Op.37 No.4; ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ (The girl returned from meeting her lover) Op.37 No.5
Weber – ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer … Leise, leise’ (Der Freischütz)
Wagner – Gebet der Elisabeth (Tannhäuser)

The Rosenblatt Recitals are near the end of a distinguished seventeen seasons which – as their Founder, Ian Rosenblatt, wrote in the programme – were conceived because ‘British audiences deserved more frequent opportunities to experience truly great voices, generally only heard at the Royal Opera House or the occasional one-off concert. My plan was to present a series of recitals by singers, in programmes of their choosing, that would act as a showcase for them.’ The roster of singers since 2000 is hugely impressive; as are more recent developments involving partnerships with Sky Arts, Opus Arte and their own dedicated YouTube channel bringing the recitals to audiences outside the four walls of the Wigmore Hall or Cadogan Hall.

Lyric dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen’s career has been gaining in momentum since 2015 because of her success in a number of singing competitions including Plácido Domingo’s Operalia in London (review here). I am an infrequent visitor to the Wigmore Hall, but over four days I have heard two singers born in Northern Europe. Firstly there was the celebrated Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila (review here), and now Lise Davidsen who is Norwegian. This was an intriguing juxtaposition as both have big voices and there was a tiny overlap in what they sang: the major difference, of course, is that Davidsen is just beginning to establish herself, whilst Mattila has been an opera ‘star’ for more than thirty years.

Lise Davidsen announced this was her first recital in England (I presume she meant the UK?) and her first with James Baillieu who is well known to Wigmore Hall audiences. Her selection of songs and arias were indeed her favourites, or from roles she has already sung or expects to sing at some time.

Davidsen opened her recital with all but one of Grieg’s six Op.48 songs composed, using German texts, for the Wagnerian soprano, Ellen Gulbranson. Although these clearly have a Norwegian accent they are rather Schumannesque. With Baillieu as her ever-responsive accompanist, Davidsen was an impassioned and eloquent advocate of her compatriot’s songs; as she would also soon prove to be for those by Strauss and Sibelius. After a delicately nuanced ‘Gruss’ (Greeting) there was a stark ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ (One day, my thoughts), an anguished ‘Zur Rosenzeit’ (In the time of Roses), ‘Ein Traum’ built exhilaratingly to its climax and she brought exquisite sensitivity to ‘En svane’ (A swan).

Currently Davidsen’s voice seems to rely on the solid technique and darker lower register of her former training as a mezzo, to which she added an unfettered, bright and strain-free top. Complementing this is her already fine legato and excellent breath control. For me Davidsen fulfilled all the demands of her chosen pieces without inhabiting them in a way she will undoubtedly do in years to come. She brought a fine depth of feeling to more introspective and emotional songs such as Strauss’s ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ (Rest, my soul!) and, especially, an ethereal and beautifully contained ‘Morgen!’ (Tomorrow). The latter song received a wonderfully expressionistic dawn-like prelude from Baillieu. That ‘Zueignung’ (Dedication) and ‘Cäcilie’ (Cecily) were less euphoric than when I heard Karita Mattila sing them is only to be expected.

Sibelius provided Davidsen with a concluding set of dark and mercurial songs composed during the years 1891 to 1902. Her impressive voice was let off the leash to soar in the final stanza of ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black roses) and ‘Var det en dröm?’ (Was it a dream?). Throughout she shaped phrases with tender lyricism when required, but was never reluctant – as with these or elsewhere in her programme – to unleash the full resources of her operatic voice. Sibelius’s late Romantic music was played by James Baillieu with subtle shading and relaxed command. At times, he seemed so laidback as if he was just another member of the audience, enjoying listening to Davidsen like the rest of us. Her final Sibelius song was the very emotive ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ (The girl returned from meeting her lover) and it proved one of the highlights of the recital. There was an ideal combination of dramatic singing and playing in a song that seems suffused with the passion and despair of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

‘Passion and despair’ actually could be used as an all-embracing title for Davidsen’s recital which dwelt on the darkness of life and only occasionally let some light in. This extended to a gloomy set of arias by Cherubini, Verdi, Giordano, Mascagni, Weber, and Wagner with a lot of angst as well as mostly death, death and more death. Obviously, these operatic arias were not performed in the correct context to fully be able to predict what the future holds for the talented Davidsen. I will see her perform Ariadne at Glyndebourne this summer and I should discover more there about her potential. At present, she sounded better suited to Cherubini and Weber than Verdi or the verismo composers. Her voice is currently more lyric soprano than lyric dramatic, and I was even left wondering how she would fare in Puccini. Wagner won her the Operalia when she sang ‘Dich, teure Halle, grüss ich wieder’ (Dear hall, I greet you once again) from Tannhäuser as if her life depended on it and she repeated Elisabeth’s Act II aria as her first encore.

On this occasion, however well all the arias were sung, I missed Davidsen’s very soul being laid bare on the platform, though once again I am sure that will happen in the future. In the arias from Un ballo in maschera, Andrea Chénier and Cavalleria rusticana I also needed to hear more of the melodrama and flaming passions which characterise verismo in James Baillieu’s playing. Her appropriately sorrowful rendition of Elisabeth’s prayer (also from Tannhäuser) brought the recital to a poignant conclusion. Two encores followed; a radiant ‘Dich, teure Halle’ and Grieg’s intimate ‘Ved Rondane’ (At Rondane) which Lise Davidsen said reminded her of the ‘west part of Norway’ and naturally meant a lot to her as a Norwegian: a fitting end to a promising first Wigmore Hall recital.

Jim Pritchard

For more about events at the Wigmore Hall visit https://wigmore-hall.org.uk/.

For more about the Rosenblatt Recitals (click here).

1 thought on “‘Passion and Despair’: A Promising First Wigmore Hall Recital from Lise Davidsen”

  1. Nahuel Di Pierro’s concert on 5 June 2017 will be the last live Rosenblatt Recital, London’s only international opera recital series

    Commenting on the decision, Ian Rosenblatt OBE, founder of Rosenblatt Recitals, said: “The Recital Series has been the great joy of my life; I have got to know some wonderful people, some extraordinary artists and made some lifelong friends who share my deep love for the voice as an art form. Every singer, pianist, orchestra, conductor and page turner has my sincerest thanks. But, my deep gratitude and respect goes to the loyal audience, the fans of the Series, who have turned up religiously for each gig, the friends who tweet and blog and who have written and emailed with suggested singers and who relentlessly have demanded to know ‘who’s coming next’ or said ‘I remember where I heard him/her first’. Thank you, and goodnight.”


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