Stunning power and presence from Lise Davidsen

Of Davidsen’s first prize-winning performance of Wagner’s demanding aria
‘Dich teure Halle’ from Tannh‰user 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 ‘Gru?’
(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 ‘C‰cilie’ 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 StorgÂrds 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 ‘S‰v, s‰v, susa’
(Reeds, reeds, whisper) to the overpowering grief of ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black
roses), from the restlessness of ‘V‰ren flyktar hastigt’ (Spring is swift
to fly away) to the wistful rapture of ‘War de ten drˆm’ (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 (‘MorrÛ, 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 ChÈnier) 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 Tannh‰user
which scaled the heights and lows, musical and expressive, with lyrical
majesty. One longs for Davidsen to add Sieglinde and Br¸nnhilde to the
Wagnerian roles – Freia, Isabella – that are already in her repertory. And,
surely she would make a terrific SalomÈ …

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: MÈdÈe – ‘Dei tuoi figli la madre’; Richard Strauss:
‘Zueignung’ Op.10 No.1, ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ Op.27 No.1, ‘Morgen’ Op.27
No.4, ‘C‰cilie’ Op.27 No.2; Verdi: Un ballo in maschera – ‘MorrÚ,
ma prima in grazia’; Giordano – Andrea ChÈnier – ‘La mamma morta’;
Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana – ‘Voi lo sapete’; Sibelius:
‘Svarta rosor’ (Black Roses) Op.36 No.1, ‘S‰v, s‰v, susa’ (Reed, reed,
rustle) Op.36 No.4, ‘Var det en drˆm?’ Op.37 No.4, ‘Flickan kom ifrÂn sin
‰lsklings mˆte’ Op.37 No.5, ‘VÂren flyktar hastigt’ (Spring is Flying)
Op.13 No.4; Weber: Der Freisch¸tz – ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer
… Leise, leise’; Wagner: Tannh‰user – ‘Gebet der Elisabeth’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 9th October 2017.

image_description=Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall
product_title= Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Lise Davidsen

Photo credit: Ole J¯rgen Bratland