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Reviews

Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall
11 May 2017

Stunning power and presence from Lise Davidsen

For Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen this has been an exciting season, one which has seen her make several role and house debuts in Europe and beyond, including Agathe (Der Freischutz) at Opernhaus Zürich, Santuzza (Cavalleria Rusticana) Norwegian National Opera and, just last month, Isabella (Liebesverbot) at Teatro Colón. This Rosenblatt Recital brought her to the Wigmore Hall for her UK recital debut and if the stunning power, shining colour and absolute ease that she demonstrated in a well-chosen programme of song and opera are anything to judge by, Glyndebourne audiences are in for a tremendous treat this summer, when Davidsen appears in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lise Davidsen

Photo credit: Ole Jørgen Bratland

 

Of Davidsen’s first prize-winning performance of Wagner’s demanding aria ‘Dich teure Halle’ from Tannhäuser at 2015’s Operalia competition, I wrote, ‘she thrilled with a towering performance of majestic power and penetration. Her plush sound was pin-point accurate and her technical assurance unwavering’, and this comment would be similarly pertinent as an account of this Wigmore Hall recital. Of course, singing at the Wigmore Hall is not the same thing as communicating to the far reaches of the auditorium at Covent Garden: there were times when Davidsen’s fearless and unstinting commitment led her to give her hugely powerful voice full throttle, and one wondered if she really might raise the Wigmore roof. But, on the whole her technical control enabled her to measure the context judiciously. Moreover, her pianissimo is a thing of dreams, for she has the confidence to stay the vibrato, her soprano so perfectly centred and secure that she can aim for, and achieve, absolute purity of sound.

If one was to hair-split, one might say that while the top and bottom - the latter is surprisingly warm and textured - of Davidsen’s soprano are equally rich and strong, she occasionally neglects to colour the middle range with the result that it grabs the attention less forcefully. And, her diction is fair, but she could have taken a little more trouble with the text, especially in the German lieder.

Davidsen was accompanied by James Baillieu who was, as ever, a sensitive partner, alert to the details. If one were to say that one scarcely noticed his presence then this would be intended as a compliment, suggesting not that he was overshadowed but rather that he was perfectly attuned to Davidsen’s expression.

Though Davidsen’s natural home is clearly the opera house, she proved a penetrating interpreter of lieder, presenting sequences of the songs by Grieg, Richard Strauss and Sibelius. There was a real sense of excitement in both the voice and the piano’s exuberant accompaniment in Grieg’s ‘Gruβ’ (Greeting) with which the recital began, while the simple reflectiveness of ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ (One day, my thoughts) introduced us to the mesmerising focus of Davidsen’s soprano when she reins back the volume and concentrates the power in the pure colour and tone. She can totally engage her listeners with a narrative, as the unfolding sequence of emotions in ‘Zur Rosenzeit’ (In the time of roses) demonstrated. But, her attention to detail is no less noteworthy: the way she coloured the semitone nuance in the rising motif, against low piano triplets, at the start of ‘Ein Traum’ (A dream) - ‘I once dreamed a beautiful dream, a blond maid loved me’ - gave an enticing hint of the astonishing rapture of the close of the song. ‘En Svane’ (A swan) was deeply expressive, the smooth fluency of the voice complemented by the cool transparency of Baillieu’s accompaniment.

Davidsen’s soprano swept gloriously through four songs by Richard Strauss, with ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ (Rest, my soul!) a particular highlight. The duo captured the full range of the song’s strange combination of emotions, from the delicate introspection of the opening verse - which warmed beautifully as the sun revealed itself through the dark leaves - through the stormy central section where the urgent peaks were wonderfully shaped, to the emphatic sentiment, ‘These are epic times’, of the close. The floating ascent of the piano playout confirmed the assurance and peace that the poet-speaker desires - ‘rest, rest my soul, and forget what is threatening you!’ - and, for once, there was not a single shuffle or snuffle from the Wigmore Hall audience in the brief pause between this song and Strauss’s ‘Morgen’. The soaring, impassioned close of ‘Cäcilie’ was brilliantly life-affirming: ‘If you knew what it is to live … if you knew it, you would live with me.’

Davidsen will make her debut at the BBC Proms in August, joining the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds to perform extracts from Grieg’s Peer Gynt alongside Sibelius’s Luonnotar, and the five Sibelius songs offered here were a delicious foretaste of what’s to come. From the mystery of the rippling of the dark reed beds in ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Reeds, reeds, whisper) to the overpowering grief of ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black roses), from the restlessness of ‘Vären flyktar hastigt’ (Spring is swift to fly away) to the wistful rapture of ‘War de ten dröm’ (Was it a dream?) - in the latter the evenness of Baillieu’s cross-rhythms was aptly hypnotic - these songs conjured myriad emotions and told entrancing stories.

It was the opera arias that Davidsen really rose to the heights, though, for her soprano is not only hugely powerful, gloriously silken and richly glossy, it is also an incredibly ‘dramatic’ voice. She has a transfixing statuesque poise but can suddenly swell with astonishing passion, despair or rage. We believed in, and felt, the maternal love of Verdi’s Amelia as she pleaded with Renato to let her see her son one last time (‘Morró, ma prima in grazia’, Un ballo in maschera). And, though she is not a spinto, Davidsen has the high ease and effortless power to convince in verismo melodrama as her stirring but dignified account - encompassing both melancholy and heroism - of Maddalena di Coigny’s desperate suffering (Andrea Chénier) confirmed. Here and in ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’ ( Cavalleria rusticana) Baillieu deftly established the dramatic and emotional context.

By the close of the recital, one could sense how much Davidsen wants to sing, and sing, and her joy was both beguiling and infectious. She closed with two prayers, which demonstrated her confidence and clarity about what it is that she wishes to communicate. First came Agathe’s ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’ in which, as she begs for her beloved Max’s life to be spared, Agathe hears his approach and is overcome by gratitude, love and enchantment. Lastly, Elisabeth’s prayer from Act 3 of Tannhäuser which scaled the heights and lows, musical and expressive, with lyrical majesty. One longs for Davidsen to add Sieglinde and Brünnhilde to the Wagnerian roles - Freia, Isabella - that are already in her repertory. And, surely she would make a terrific Salomé …

But before that we have Ariadne to look forward to, and then, in October, Cherubini’s Medea at the Wexford Opera Festival where Davidsen sings for the first time. As he listened to Davidsen’s searing account of Medea’s ‘Dei tuoi figli la madre’, the Festival’s Artistic Director David Agler, who was present in the Wigmore Hall - having at the weekend collected the Best Festival Award at the 2017 International Opera Awards - must have been feeling lucky and thrilled.

Claire Seymour

Lise Davidsen (soprano), James Baillieu (piano)

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: Médée - ‘Dei tuoi figli la madre’; 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: Un ballo in maschera - ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’; Giordano - Andrea Chénier - ‘La mamma morta’; Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana - ‘Voi lo sapete’; Sibelius: ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black Roses) Op.36 No.1, ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Reed, reed, rustle) Op.36 No.4, ‘Var det en dröm?’ Op.37 No.4, ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ Op.37 No.5, ‘Våren flyktar hastigt’ (Spring is Flying) Op.13 No.4; Weber: Der Freischütz - ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer ... Leise, leise’; Wagner: Tannhäuser - ‘Gebet der Elisabeth’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 9th October 2017.

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