Lise Davidsen: Strauss and Wagner
It’s been a long time since a singer has generated as much buzz as the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, Gramophone’s current Young Artist of the Year, and her debut album for Decca was always going to be an event. She opts for Strauss and Wagner: no surprise given recent and current engagements, even if eyebrows might well be raised that a 32-year-old soprano should have chosen to record the Four Last Songs for her debut recital.
But Davidsen is no ordinary singer. Throughout the whole album one marvels at the voice, its easy grandeur and sheer size, its steely focus and security – all well captured by Decca’s engineers. The timbre has a default cool beauty but she can flood it with warmth to fill out a phrase magnificently. These gifts are matched by the maturity, honesty and integrity of Davidsen’s approach.
The operatic extracts make an impressive opener – confident and superbly sung. But she’s even better in the earlier Strauss songs, where we get a real sense of tension in a terrific ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ and plenty of Schwung in ‘Cäcilie’ and ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’. ‘Morgen’ is a marvel of calm contemplation, showing (as does a melting ‘Wiegenlied’) how beautifully Davidsen can pare her voice down when necessary. She seems a little less sure, though, how to deal with Strauss’s actual last song, the slight ‘Malven’ – not helped by being heard in its orchestral guise.
And the Four Last Songs themselves? Davidsen’s vocal riches and interpretative honesty are deeply rewarding, her majestic soprano harking perhaps most to the work’s first performer (and her compatriot) Kirsten Flagstad, rather than to any of the more lyrical sopranos that have dominated over the last decades. There are many wonderful moments, such as the final hushed phrase of ‘September’, leading to that heartbreaking horn solo, beautifully done here.
But I miss the sense of these songs having been lived in, and Davidsen inevitably takes a little longer to get airborne in her phrases than lighter voices do, needing a bit more space to negotiate the bends of Strauss’s melismas. And she’s not helped by Esa Pekka Salonen, whose conducting sometimes here feels strangely listless. The grand opening of ‘Im Abendrot’ (a distinctly broad nine minutes in this recording), for example, soon starts to sag and lose warmth – compare how Karajan fills out and sustains these phrases in his famous account with Gundula Janowitz.
Arguably Davidsen could have waited until she had more to say about these remarkable works before going into the studio with them. But there’s still enormous pleasure to be had from hearing her in them, and this album only reinforces the fact that she is one of the greatest vocal talents to have emerged in recent years, if not decades.