Wagner Notes

Susan Brodie
March 2022

“Lise Davidsen: Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi.” London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder. Total timing: 63.28. A Decca Classics Release, made in Germany, 2021. “Edvard Grieg”: Lise Davidsen, soprano; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano. Total timing: 79.48. A Decca Classics Release, New York, 2022.

Gallons of ink have been spilled in praise of the ravishing instrument that soprano Lise Davidsen brought to the opera world when she burst on the scene in 2015. It was clear from the start that she was destined for the great Wagner roles when her voice was ready. She has been working her way gradually into the Wagner repertoire, having already sung Elisabeth and Sieglinde at Bayreuth. Strauss has become a calling card; she’s singing Ariadne and Chrysothemis at the Met this spring, and the Marschallin next season.

After her 2019 debut album which emphasized Strauss and Wagner, Davidsen’s repertoire choices for her second album were telling. Davidsen herself considered titling her disc “Next Chapter,” to indicate her intended direction for the next five years. For all that Wagnerians may be eager to hear her Brunnhilde, Davidsen makes it clear that she has no intention of rushing into the heaviest roles too early. “Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi,” with Sir Mark Elder conducting the London Philharmonic, gives an idea of her middle ground.

Recorded in the fall of 2020, Beethoven was an obvious choice in his anniversary year, and after her triumphant brief run of Fidelio at Covent Garden a few months earlier. In Leonora’s aria, “Abscheulicher! Wo ellst du hin?” Davidsen rode the scene’s peaks and valleys with ease, though the rising chromatic scale was a little unruly (understandable – passage work in a voice that size is like driving a Mack truck on a slalom course). Her second Beethoven selection, “Ah, perfido!” pairs well, expressing heightened but contrasting emotions with similar vocal demands.

Lise Davidsen

Staying in the same era, Davidsen revisits an aria from a role she sang in 2017, Medea, at Wexford Festival Opera: “Dei tuoi figli la madre.” The formal elegance of Cherubini’s writing is shattered by the power and violence of her outbursts on “crudel!”; one would like to hear her sing this as alternate Met casting next season.

On to Mascagni: “Voi lo sapete” (Cavalleria rusticana), surprisingly, though she performed the role of Santuzza at Wexford in 2017. Again, the force of her natural voice provided enough emotion to make the usual sobs and breaks of verismo style unnecessary.

Verdi probably will never be a mainstay in her repertoire, but her “Pace, pace, mio Dio!” from Forza was, again, thrilling, for her soaring lines and command of the dynamic range; her pianissimo top is lovely. Desdemona’s prayer from Otello was one of those “might have beens”: she has already been told that she is too vocally developed to be cast in that role.

Finally, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, a touchstone of any Wagner singer’s repertoire. This reading lacked both the perfumed languor and the stentorian weight of many performances. Davidsen simply sang the songs, and one reveled at the sound. It will be interesting to hear her sing these again in several years.

Davidsen’s other pandemic project was a recital with her compatriot, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, titled simply “Edvard Grieg.” This selection of 28 songs from the Norwegian composer’s output of nearly 200 songs for piano and voice (Grieg’s wife was a soprano) is a rare collaboration between two Norwegian artists in their prime.

The Grieg songs are well suited to the soprano’s voice and musical temperament: the writing is mostly sustained, syllabic, and emotionally restrained, though with opportunities for the big moments that she executes so thrillingly. Davidsen’s singing is honest and straightforward, with an understated directness and modesty. Andsnes, as collaborative pianist, is both supportive and expansive, filling out the colorful textures of the natural world.

The disc opens with Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid), Op. 67, Grieg’s only true song cycle, written for his wife in 1898. The eight songs, on a popular verse novella by Arne Garborg, follow the cowherd girl Veslemøy as she moves about the woods, communing with nature, finding love and losing it. The texts are enigmatic, sometimes impressionistic, filled with nature imagery, expressing emotions in a frequently elliptical fashion, sometimes with great passion.

Andsnes’ musical personality stands out immediately in the piano’s opening bars; his touch is liquid and the notes sparkle. In his playing one can hear the sounds of nature often characterized in the text. The two artists seem to share a delightful conversation.

In this recording Davidsen’s voice sounds at times more relaxed and natural, and at other times more mature and “operatic” than in her aria album; you can on occasion hear her wind up for a climax. But she largely connects with the song texts more directly and intimately than with the arias, which require her to assume a character. It’s also a different experience to sing in one’s native language.

The remaining songs come from a variety of compositional periods, and most are in a quasi-dialect form of Norwegian (six are in German). Some are frequently heard on vocal recitals — “The Swan” (text by Ibsen), “I Love You” (Hans Christian Andersen), “The Way of the World” (Johan Uhland) — others are less familiar, but there’s barely a dud among them.

Of the six Opus 48 songs in German, I was particularly taken with “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall” (the Secretive Nightingale). Davidsen’s dreamy delivery and delicate ornaments recall not only the song of the nightingale, but also a lydarslått (listening tune), a type of quasi-improvisatory solo for hardanger fiddle, the national folk instrument that inspired some of Grieg’s piano music. I haven’t heard other singers capture this very special flavor, an important element of the composer’s fascination with his country’s folk music. Davidsen’s singing of these songs does not sound like Norwegian kveding (a folk style of unaccompanied solo singing), but she approaches its straightforward, vibratoless style in some of the songs.

Davidsen is musical and expressive, but her sense of drama is restrained compared to some in her fach. She has yet to develop a heightened sense of language, though her German diction is more inflected than her pronunciation in Norwegian. Above all, these two discs are a sampler and a record of an important voice with an exciting present and a promising future.

A reservation common to both albums is the fidelity of the voice capture. In both cases the soprano initially sounded distant, and I found myself adjusting the volume frequently. For the orchestral album, the miking gave her room to open up for some very dramatic climaxes; it surely is difficult to capture an instrument with such a wide dynamic range. Possibly very high-end equipment could handle the challenge, but this is a singer best heard live. That said, these two albums nonetheless can offer great listening pleasure while we wait for her Brünnhilde. “Edvard Grieg” is the album I will return to more frequently for the sound of her voice and the musical discoveries.

© Wagner Notes, March 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.


Susan Brodie,

a WSNY member, writes for MCANA’s online journal, Classical Voice North America, and manages their Facebook presence as well as WSNY’s social media.