Lise Davidsen thrills her Wigmore Hall audience in an evening of drama, joy and sadness

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grieg, Berg, Schubert and Sibelius: Lise Davidsen (soprano) and James Baillieu (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 13.10.2023. (CSa)

Lise Davidsen (soprano) and James Baillieu (piano) © The Wigmore Hall Trust

Grieg – 5 Songs, Op.69 – Der gynger en Båd på Bølge, Til min Dreng, Ved Moders Grav, Snegl, Snegl!, Drømme Berg – 7 frühe LiederNacht, Schilflied, Die Nachtigall, Traumgekrönt, Im Zimmer, Liebesode, Sommertage
Schubert – An die Musik, D547; Lachen und Weinen, D777; Die junge Nonne, D828; Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118; Erlkönig, D328; Am Tage aller Seelen, D343
Sibelius – Den första kyssen, Op.37 No.1; Lasse liten, Op.37 No.2; Soluppgång, Op.37 No.3; Var det en dröm?, Op.37 No.4; Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte, Op.37 No.5; Svarta rosor, Op.36 No.1

Recently returned from New York and the vast stage of the Metropolitan Opera where she made her recital debut, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen and her consummate accompanist James Baillieu chose London and the altogether more intimate platform of the Wigmore Hall to repeat much of the programme. Often compared to her late compatriot Kirsten Flagstad, ‘grandeur’ is the word most frequently used to describe the voice of this remarkable singer. It is indeed a magnificent instrument capable of enormous volume,  gleaming purity of tone and long, unbroken phrases, but it is also supple, richly resonant, and endlessly adaptable. Davidsen’s silvery top register can reach the furthest reaches of the Met’s cavernous 3,800 seat auditorium, but her remarkably wide dynamic range can equally be modulated into a delicately coloured, warm half-voice, ideal for a small space such as Wigmore Hall, which accommodates an audience of just over 550.

The works chosen chronicled all aspects of the human condition from love and longing to melancholy and joy. While Nordic Europe was well represented in some pieces by Grieg and Sibelius – beautifully rendered by Davidsen and Baillieu – however, it was Vienna, the Lieder capital of Europe and works by Alban Berg and Schubert which occupied the musical and dramatic heart of this concert.

Alban Berg’s 7 Early Songs were composed in the early 1900s while he was a student of Arnold Schoenberg. Stylistically, Berg appeared to look back to the late Romantic lyricism of Brahms and Hugo Wolf, but the poems he chose to set, such as Rilke’s Traumgekrönt (Crowned with dreams) anticipated Freudian theories of human behaviour. They depicted something more contemporary: a hedonistic and sensuous dreamworld, conjured up by Davidsen in a performance of subtle and sinuous beauty.

Lise Davidsen (soprano) and James Baillieu (piano) © The Wigmore Hall Trust

Davidsen’s dramatic and storytelling skills make her a brilliant exponent of Schubert’s programmatic songs. Her spectral account of Erlkönig, in which she gave individual voices to the narrator, the terrified boy, his sceptical father and the sinister Elfin King, chilled the blood and thrilled the senses, while her spellbinding rendition of Gretchen am Spinnrade demonstrated that the lovesick Gretchen at her whirring spindle was not alone in spinning a good yarn. These psychologically charged fairy stories were topped and tailed by gorgeous expositions of four of Schubert’s best-known lieder, An die Musik (To Music), Lachen und Weinen (Laughter and Tears), Die junge Nonne (The Young Nun) and Am Tage aller Seelen (All Souls’ Day).

Fittingly, the recital started in Norway with Grieg’s touching 5 Songs: some sunny and warmly sung, like Til min Dreng (To My Son), others, like Snegl, Snegl! (Snail, Snail!), delivered with twinkle-in-the-eye innuendo. There was anguish too in an intensely sad Ved Moders Grave (At Mother’s Grave).  Davidsen’s journey ended in Finland, with a collection of six evocative songs by Sibelius. The last of them, Svarta rosor (Black Roses), proved a dark-hued and icy note on which to conclude the evening, but one which fuelled the roaring fire of approval from the Hall’s capacity audience for Davidsen and Baillieu. Two generous Grieg encores – Ein Traum (A Dream) and Zur Rosenzeit (The Time of Roses) – failed to quell the flames.

Chris Sallon

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