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Miah Persson [Photo by Monika Rittershaus]
26 Jun 2012

Miah Persson, Wigmore Hall

At the Wigmore Hall, there’s long been a tradition of Swedish song. We’ve heard many of the greats, Anne Sofie von Otter, Barbara Bonney and others. Miah Persson and Roger Vignoles are in this constellation.

Songs by Emil Sjögren, Peter Illych Tchaikovsky, Gösta Nystroem, Lars-Erik Larsson, Edvard Grieg

Miah Persson, soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano.Wigmore Hall London, 19th June 2012.

Above: Miah Persson [Photo by Monika Rittershaus]


One of their earliest London concerts was built around their 2003 recording Soul and Landscape (Hyperion). Since then, Miah Persson has become one of the most significant lyric sopranos in this country. The pair have been back many times at the Wigmore Hall, but it was still a pleasure to hear them, particularly in repertoire that is “new” to English audiences.

Persson and Vignoles began their programme with Emil Sjögren’s Sechs Lieder aus Julius Wollf’s Tannhäuser, (1884). Not Wagner’s Tannhäuser but a setting of an epic poem written in 1880. As Geoffrey Norris writes in his knowledgeable programme notes, Wollf (1834-1910) liked subjects “of a mythical past…described somewhat derogatorily as Butzenzenscheibenpoesie, a Butzenscheibe being an old form of archery target”, like those round fake-archaic window panes we see in mock-historic pubs. Although I hadn’t read Norris’s notes until I started writing this piece, that’s exactly how I felt about the songs. Sjögren, (1853-1918) chooses sections that deal with love, and are sweet rather than dramatic. Don’t even dream of Wagner. These are songs that evoke late 19th century middle class values. “Ich möchte schweben über Tal und Hügel “ let Perssons sing very quietly. This Tannhäuser (or Elizabeth) is a gentle soul.

Tchaikovsky songs of the same period brought out Persson’s abilities as dramatist. In “Sred’ shumnovo bala” (At the Ball, op 38/3 1878), Tchaikovsky pains dance rhytms into the piano part, and pathos into the voice. The ball is cheerful, but the beloved eyes are sad. It’s a secretive song, but Perssons makes you notice the subtle ciontrasts of mood. “Solovey” (op 60/4 1886) stressed Persson’s voice slightly, but in “Cradle Song” (op 16/1 1872) she managed to convey the strange darkness behind this lullaby with images of eagles.

Five songs by Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986) to words by Hjalmar Gullberg followed. Larsson and Gullberg worked together frequently and their cantata “Förklädd gud” (God in disguise) is a staple in Swedish choral singing circles. (It’s even on YouTube). Larsson worked in broadcasting, so he appreciated music that would have broad popular appeal, even though he studied with Alban Berg and was the first Swedish composer to experiment with serialism. These songs, here transcribed for voice and piano, have charm, rollicking piano, and contrasting cleanly arching vocal lines. “Skyn, blomman och en lärka” (The cloud, the flower and the lark) was lit up by Persson’s ability to smile into her singing, adding warm tone. In “Kyssande vind” (the kiss of the wind), the piano rolls up a storm. Someone is stealing a kiss, disguised as the wind. The song ends with a flourish, and Persson sings with such happiness that you know the kiss is welcome.

More familiar songs by Edvard Grieg, in which Persson excels. “En svane” (op 252 1876) had the right hint of melancholy. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s recording, in German, is hauntingly beautiful, but the song is even lovelier in Norwegian. “Mens jeg venter” (On the water, op 60/3 1893-4) was particularly beautiful. Vignoles playing sparkled : you could visualize light shining off the ocean waves. “Bro, bro, brille” goes the refrain, and Perssons makes it joyous.

The highlight of this recital, for me, anyway, were the songs from Gösta Nystroem (1890-1966). Nystreom is one of the finest Swedish composers, whose “Sånger vid havet” (Songs by the sea), “På reveln” (At the reef) and “Själ och landskap” (Soul and landscape) are a part of the repertoire of any female Swedish singer. Miah Persson of course does those for soprano : Nystroem inspired her first major recording nearly 10 years ago. Here she chose two songs from Nystroem’s incidental music to “The Tempest” (1946). Give Nystroem’s fascination with oceans, it’s hardly surprising that the orchestral parts of this music are wildly turbulent, complete with wordless chorus. The two sings Persson and Vignoles pick refect the magical side of the story, “Where the Bee sucks” and “Come unto these yellow sands” (in Swedish) are exquisitely lyrical, capturing the strange magic that Shakespeare conures. The refrain “Hark! Hark! Bow-wow” becomes “Hallå, Hallå, Å”, whuch gives Nystroem a chance to write exotic ulullation, which Persson sings with clear, bright tones. Later, the refrain “Ding dong bell” becomes “Bing, bång, farväl”, and Persson’s voice rings like a silvery bell.

Perhaps one of the most famous of Gösta Nystroem’s works is his “Sinfonia del Mare” (1946-8) a magnificent symphonic poem with a song in its midst, to a poem by Ebba Linqvist. Arising from the wild ocean intensity of the music, the song seems almost supernatural. “Just as one flees the beloved, not bearing to be consumed”, goes the poem, “So I have fled the sea”. But just as life without love is in vain, the poet must leave sunny days in the forst, drawn back to “a sigh of the wind from the sea”. Persson and Vignoles do an arrangement for piano and voice, so the emphasis is on the second strophe. “I must return, and sit by the sea and know. That is all there is on earth”. This is the title of the poem, and its meaning.

Anne Ozorio

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