Anne Sofie von Otter’s Grieg recital for DG (6/93R) did much to encourage singers outside Scandinavia to bring back to the concert platform – and the public again to listen to – songs which their great-grandparents knew well but their parents had almost forgotten. Now another front-ranking Swedish mezzo-soprano has recorded core components of the Grieg song repertoire. Like her compatriot, Katarina Karnéus includes the Op 67 “Mountain Maid” cycle, the Ibsen settings, the six German lyrics of Op 48 and the early Hans Christian Andersen “Melodies of the Heart”, adding, suitably, the less well known “The Princess” to words by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.
Compare Karnéus, von Otter and Kirsten Flagstad (one of at least three recordings) in Haugtussa. Karnéus and Julius Drake are all over the imagery, scenery and sexuality of Garborg’s verse novel in thrilling and well worked detail. Flagstad may appear at first hearing to be limiting herself to heroic declamation and her pianist (regular collaborator Edwin McArthur) just mapping out the written notes, but her sheer joy in singing her own language, and the subtlety of her pointing of the text (a half-smile, a raised eyebrow) and cunning use of her large voice make their own points. Von Otter has something of both sides – a weightier tone and more reserve than Karnéus but a much wider colour range than Flagstad chooses to deploy – and Bengt Forsberg is a magician in these accompaniments.
Elsewhere the Karnéus performances are good and lively in the Scandinavian lyrics (a passionate “Jeg elsker dig”, a good range of moods in the Ibsen settings), more formal in the German settings. All Saints Church in Finchley, north London, sounds especially resonant here, not everywhere an advantage in such text-oriented settings. Lots to enjoy and celebrate then, but don’t ignore the competition.