United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2021  – Grieg, Backer Grøndahl, Schumann and Wolf: Mari Eriksmoen (soprano), Daniel Heide (piano). Old College Quad, 11.8.2021. (SRT)
Grieg – Haugtussa
Backer Grøndahl – Five songs from Barnets Vaardag
Schumann – Song from Myrthen
Wolf – Five songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch
We listeners outside of Norway don’t tend to think of Grieg as a vocal composer, but he was a song composer all his life (he was married to a singer) and I am told by those who claim to know about such things that his cycle Haugtussa is as highly regarded in Norway as, say, Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin. Perhaps not coincidentally, both cycles end with a disconsolate lover confiding their disappointments to a brook.
How lovely to have a Norwegian soprano singing it in Edinburgh, but then pretty much everything about this recital was lovely. I had not come across Mari Eriksmoen before seeing her in this year’s EIF programme, but I will definitely look out for her again. She is possessed of a really beautiful soprano voice; rich and creamy throughout, with a refulgent, cresting top and an arrestingly secure lower register. She is also a marvellous vocal actress, and she brought the narrative of Grieg’s songs to illuminating life. They are nearly all straightforwardly strophic, but Eriksmoen endowed each stanza with its own character and sense of indispensability to the unfolding story. She ran the gamut of emotions from playful, in the marvellously titled ‘Goats’ dance’, to naïve despair when her lover disappears.
At the keyboard, pianist Daniel Heide knew his place, with playing that was enormously supportive but never stealing the limelight, though he provided a marvellous rippling line for the final song to the brook. Together they captured the mix of quiet nobility and warm nostalgia in Ved Rondane, Grieg’s setting of a song to a mountain of his homeland, and in Våren, their encore. They also introduced us to the songs of Agathe Backer Grøndahl, whose cycle Barnets Vaardag (‘The Child’s Spring Day’) was simple, bright and innocent. Eriksmoen matched it with a very sunny vocal colour, with a sensational top, then changing to a lovely dusky tone for the cycle’s two nocturnal songs.
Impressively, she was every bit at home in Schumann and Wolf, singing in (to my ears) excellent German, and imbuing her selection of songs from Schumann’s Myrthen with evocative beauty. The controlled ecstasy of ‘Widmung’ was extraordinary, as was the gorgeous moment of falling asleep at the end of ‘Der Nussbaum’. Five songs from Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch showed off the light, playful side of her voice, and Heide got to finish the recital with a hilarious piano line, sensationally dispatched, as a coda to the soprano’s song about having multiple lovers in different cities.
The only sad thing was the rows of empty seats. Perhaps it’s Covid, perhaps it’s the lesser-known name, but lovers of singing should have been queueing up to hear what was a sensational EIF debut. You can hear it for yourself here until the middle of September.
The 2021 Edinburgh International Festival takes place until Sunday 29th August in venues across the city. For full details click here.