Cher Public

Upon arrival

Lise Davidsen, the young Norwegian soprano who won the Operalia competition in 2015, makes her debut as a recording artist with the Decca label in a new recital of Wagner and Strauss arias and orchestral songs. 

Accompanied by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Davidsen here wields a dramatic instrument of arresting power and beauty in music that complements her prodigious gifts. This new album marks an important milestone in this young artist’s career, as it documents the arrival of an extraordinary voice that augurs musical and interpretive riches for the dramatic soprano repertory.

When Decca signed Ms. Davidsen to a recording contract in May of 2018, the label announced her as the first exclusive Norwegian artist since Kirsten Flagstad and the first Scandinavian dramatic soprano since Birgit Nilsson to join their legendary roster.

Although comparisons with such esteemed artists are normally trite, the extraordinary qualities of Davidsen’s singing has the rare power to give one pause. At her young age of 32, there are already glimmers of that stately columnar sound that characterized Norway’s most celebrated Isolde, along with a brilliant focus that was the hallmark of Birgit Nilsson’s singing.

Ms. Davidsen possesses a luminous dramatic soprano that combines an incomparable richness, luster and warmth with a line of astonishing purity. Whether she is singing an operatic aria or a more intimate lied, Davidsen consistently renders her phrases with such clarity, firmness of tone, a liquid legato and nuance at all dynamic ranges.  Her phrases are sculpted with attention to musical detail, while her softer singing stuns the listener for the delicacy she can muster with her powerful instrument.

The operatic excerpts included in this album hail from two works that currently form the core of Davidsen’s staged appearances—Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Elisabeth’s “Dich teure Halle,” which opens the album (this was also the piece than won her the top prize in Domingo’s competition), is radiant and soaring. The ardor of Elisabeth’s love manifests here with great sincerity, and her ascent to the scintillating top B-natural near the aria’s close impresses.

Conversely, Elisabeth’s somber prayer “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau,” is sculpted with a delicately spun and purely sung legato. The phrase “..so rang ich unter tausen Schmerzen, dass ich es töt’ in meinem Herzen!” overwhelms with the powerful buildup Davidsen achieves at the piece’s heart, before she draws the sound back for a more introspective and solemn whisper.

Following these exquisitely sung Wagner arias, Davidsen and Salonen pivot to the other main composer of this album with Ariadne’s aria “Es gibt ein Reich.” She has already performed the role of Ariadne in many important venues, which include Glyndebourne, the Vienna State Opera, and Aix-en-Provence.

Ariadne’s great solo contains several elements that mesh beautifully with the strengths of Davidsen’s singing. The more elegiac first phrases of the aria are delivered here with remarkable dynamic control, complete with a full, resonant low A-flat. The shifting episodes between Ariadne’s glacial solitude and her more ecstatic exclamations are built with the utmost musicality, preparing the listener for the aria’s soaring close.

When we finally arrive at “Du wirst mich befreien,” Davidsen vaults towards the final phrases with the full strength of her dramatic soprano.  Ariadne’s fiery welcoming of the liberating afterlife here thrums with an intensity that is served so magnificently by her powerful instrument.

After the excerpt from Ariadne, Davidsen presents a collection of Strauss lieder that include the Op. 27 Vier Lieder, the erotic and dreamlike Wiegenlied, the posthumously discovered “Malven” and the soaring Vier Letzte Lieder. In this album’s incarnation, the Op. 27 Vier Lieder are accompanied by Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

“Ruhe, meine Seele” suits the medium best, the poetry rendered by Davidsen with a warm, dark sound and dramatic phrasing. Greatly impressive too is “Heimliche Aufforderung,” the third song wherein the singer invites her love to a night of drink and romance. Davidsen slenderizes her vocal production here, her lilting romantic phrases creating an image of an excitable young lover.

“Morgen,” the most delicate of the four, shows off the riches of Davidsen’s piano singing, with her immense voice scaled down to a whisper in this intimate and lyrical love letter.

Although Davidsen meets the operatic outbursts in “Cäcilie” beautifully, I find that the use of an orchestral accompaniment diminishes some of Davidsen’s ability to relish in the phrasing and impart a young lover’s glittering zeal onto the poetry. Having heard her sing these same pieces with lieder accompanist Helmut Deutsch, I find that Davidsen’s ability to phrase these songs (particularly for “Cäcilie” and “Morgen”) is accentuated by the more intimate setting of a voice-piano recital.

The Op. 41 Wiegelied is an erotically tinted lullaby that shimmers with the exotic textures akin to the flower seduction scene in Parsifal. The highly atmospheric music Strauss orchestrates here provide a fine foil for Davidsen’s singing, her vocal line dreamlike and evocative.

“Malven,” orchestrated by Wolfgang Rihm, is a slightly stranger affair—a sweetly lyrical piece with unusual harmonic twists and an exotic and tonally exploratory accompaniment. Davidsen performs these pure Kaiserin-like lines with the utmost delicacy and beauty, using her phrasing to recreate the imagery of flowers and colors in Strauss’ text.

Davidsen and Salonen close this impressive recital with the composer’s elegiac Vier Letzte Lieder. Her dramatic “Frühling” recalls the full-bodied intensity that its creator, Flagstad, imparted to the piece during its premiere in 1950. At her young age, Davidsen’s soprano is fresher and meets the song’s dynamic challenges admirably during the poem’s more soaring excerpts.

“September” and “Beim Schlafengehen” are sung with strong technical grounding, demonstrating the soprano’s impeccable breath control. However, I felt that Salonen’s accompaniment slacked in parts and kept the music from flowering as he did in the operatic arias. “Im Abendrot” suffers from similar issues, but the repose, soaring lines, and the introspective touches Davidsen brings to this bookend make it more interesting than the middle songs.

I suppose my small (and it is a miniscule one) reservation about this presentation of Strauss’ valedictory orchestral lieder cycle is that they lack that indescribable quality of artistic individuality one associated with more mature singers.

These poetic and philosophic pieces can benefit greatly from years of revisiting the text and the music, and I found myself wishing that the last part of this recital was occupied by more opera (“Ein Schönes war” from Ariadne would have been welcome, as well as Sieglinde’s solos from the Ring). This is not to say that Davidsen’s accomplishment isn’t fantastic—this is after all Straussian singing of the highest order.

But I seek more depth, more textual nuance, and perhaps even a swifter, more flowing accompaniment to the Four Last Songs. Perhaps Decca could consider revisiting these lieder with the soprano in a decade or two?

Salonen largely leads Davidsen in this recital sympathetically, with his greatest strengths emerging in the album’s earlier operatic arias. Wagner and Strauss’ dense thickets of orchestration emerged with clarity and romanticism in the Ariadne and Tannhäuser excerpts. The softer excerpts are given space to blossom and the dramatic propulsion never slackened.

The Strauss songs that precede the Vier Letzte Lieder are also provided with the most atmospheric and evocative colors and textures. It is thus slightly disappointing that the enchanting Vier Letzte Lieder felt so murky and languid.  While there were several moments of great beauty (including Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s gossamer violin solos), I felt that these highly Romantic songs almost appeared to elude Salonen’s more analytical personality.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is exceptional in this recital, the sound balanced and the various instrumental sections characterful in the composers’ music.

For whatever reservations I have expressed about the Four Last Songs though, this is a highly recommendable and important release from one of this generation’s most important young dramatic sopranos.