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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
‘Dich, teure Halle’ (Tannhäuser, Act II, Scene 1) [3:41]
‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau!’ (Tannhäuser, Act III, Scene 1 [7:33]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
‘Es gibt ein Reich (Ariadne auf Naxos) [6:36)
Vier Lieder, Op 27
‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ [4:36]
‘Cäcilie ‘[2:20]
‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ (orch. Robert Heger) [3:29]
‘Morgen!’ [4:34]
Wiegenlied, Op 41/1 [4:12]
Malven, TrV 287 (orch Wolfgang Rihm) [3:02]
Vier letzte Lieder [23:01]
Lise Davidsen (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. 2018, Henry Wood Hall, London
German texts, English & French translations included
DECCA 483 4883 [63:57]

You might wonder why a CD devoted primarily to orchestral Lieder by Strauss opens with two Wagner excerpts and one from a Strauss opera. In fact, there is a great deal of logic behind the programming, as we discover from Andrew Mellor’s booklet note. The two excerpts from Tannhäuser are the first and last things that the character of Elisabeth sings; Miss Davidsen will be making her Bayreuth debut singing this role in the summer of 2019. Ariadne is the role with which she made her UK debut, at Glyndebourne, in 2017. To add to the connections, Mr Mellor tells us that just a few weeks before Strauss married Pauline de Anha, she sang the role of Elisabeth at Bayreuth and Strauss was on the rostrum. The Op. 27 songs, which come later in the programme, were a wedding gift from Strauss to Pauline and, furthermore, Mellor points out that though Pauline had retired from singing by the time Ariadne auf Naxos was composed, she was clearly much in his mind as he created the title role. So, connections abound here.

We wait to see how this young Norwegian soprano will fare at Bayreuth but the omens here are auspicious. She makes a very strong initial impression at the start of ‘Dich, teure Halle’ and also conveys the sadness in the middle of the solo. Then she achieves exaltation towards the end. Elisabeth’s Prayer is, if anything, more impressive still. The singing is intense and highly focussed throughout. However, it’s the third stanza, beginning at ‘Doch, konnt’ ich jeden Fehl’ that most forcibly grabbed my attention. In these concluding minutes of the solo Davidsen’s voice is magnificently controlled and she sustains long lines of aching melody. This is a fine and moving performance.

When I sat down to type this review, I wondered if any of my Seen and Heard colleagues had reviewed Lise Davidsen’s Glyndebourne performance in Ariadne auf Naxos. On checking, I discovered that my colleague, Jim Pritchard, who knows a thing or two about Wagner and Strauss operas, had reviewed one of the performances and he was clearly impressed both by her performance and by her potential. I admired this excerpt very much. Her voice has a terrific compass: the low notes near the start are truly hit and sound with impressive roundness; yet, in a matter of bars we hear her soaring to the Straussian heights. At neither end of her vocal range is there the slightest indication of strain and at the end she sings imperiously.

All that sets us up nicely for the orchestral Lieder. I enjoyed all of the Op 27 group very much. In ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ Davidsen once again displays superb command of both line and vocal compass. Salonen brings out the restless undercurrents in the orchestral accompaniment and then both singer and players are suitably dramatic at the start of the third stanza (‘Diese Zeiten sind gewaltig’). Miss Davidsen thrillingly conveys the ecstasy in Strauss’s writing in ‘Cäcilie’ and, even more so, in ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’. The latter is a definite paean to Pauline and the voluptuous delivery of the last line – ‘O komm, du wunderbare ersehnte Nacht!’ -emphasises the point. I mean no disrespect to Lise Davidsen when I say that the enraptured performance of ‘Morgen!’ belongs just as much to the Philharmonia’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay as to her. He brings pure tone and exquisite poise to the long opening violin solo, his playing gorgeously lingering. When Davidsen begins to sing she takes up the air of enchantment spun by the violin, singing with delectable innigkeit. This rapt performance is infinitely touching and Salonen’s wonderful use of rubato in directing the orchestra is just the icing on the cake.

In Wiegenlied Lise Davidsen spins a gorgeously seamless and even line. She may not efface the memory of delectable performances by Lucia Popp or Soile Isokoski – both of whom have intrinsically lighter voices – but she pares back her sound, without compromising quality in any way, and sings the song beautifully. The Philharmonia bring the utmost delicacy to the orchestral writing. We hear Strauss’s last song, Malven, only discovered in 1984, in a recent orchestration by Wolfgang Rihm. This orchestration was only done in 2012 and I’d not heard it before but it seems to me to be both sympathetic and effective.

When it came to the Vier letzte Lieder my initial intention was to make some detailed comparisons. However, I decided that this was a futile task since so many star sopranos have recorded it, each bringing their own insights and their own individual timbre to the songs. In any case, my colleague Ralph Moore has already surveyed over 40 contenders on disc. I will, however, make one or two general comparisons, just to place Davidsen’s performance in some kind of context.

In ‘’Frühling’ I love the soaring approach to the tessitura. This song is a rapturous greeting to Spring and in Miss Davidsen’s case we’re in no doubt of that. ‘September’ is excellent. Here is just one of many instances on this disc where one may admire the beautiful way in which the Philharmonia etch in the orchestral parts. Lise Davidsen sings the song wonderfully, not least the last two lines, ‘Langsam tut er die / müdgeword’nen Augen zu.’ Here she displays formidable breath control to invest the phrase with great meaning. It’s not often that the principal horn is named on a recording of this work but on this occasion, Nigel Black is credited, and rightly so: his glowing tone contributes mightily to a wonderful account of the postlude by the Philharmonia.

‘Beim Schlafengehen’ benefits from another ravishing violin solo from Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. His playing leads wonderfully into the soprano’s glorious long phrase (‘Und die Seele, unbewacht’) Because Salonen has got the tempo just right – and because Miss Davidsen has enviable breath control – she is able to deliver this rapturous phrase in a single soaring line. Not all sopranos can accomplish this; even the great Jessye Norman has to take a breath before that last word, so expansive is Kurt Masur’s tempo. And so, we reach ‘Im Abendrot’, Strauss’s inspired evocation of ageing contentedly. Tempo is all-important here. Masur is too extreme – he and Jessye Norman extend the song out for a few seconds short of ten minutes! On the other hand, I’ve heard several conductors press ahead too urgently at the start. For me, Salonen gets it just right. The is a song written from the heart and Lise Davidsen’s performance is suitably heartfelt – though also scrupulously controlled. This is one of many instances on the disc where the richness of timbre in her voice pays huge dividends. At the start of the final stanza, she delivers the line ‘O weiter, stiller Friede’ with perfect poise after which there’s a perfectly judged swelling of the voice on ‘so tief im Abendrot’. This richly satisfying performance is laid to rest by a golden epilogue, superbly played by the Philharmonia.

As you’ll have gathered, this is an account of the Vier letzte Lieder which I rate very highly indeed. Your response to it will probably depend on the type of singer you prefer to hear. Lise Davidsen doesn’t, I think, have the creaminess of tone that one experiences with, say, Kiri te Kanawa (1990 with Solti, Decca). Hers is a large, rich voice - albeit not as rich as Jessye Norman’s, towards whose recording I’ve cooled somewhat over the years – so it’s less light in timbre than, say, Soile Isokoski or Lucia Popp (1982 with Tennstedt, EMI), both of whose lovely recordings I admire very much. Miss Davidsen enunciates both words and music very expressively but there’s none of the artfulness which can be found on the Schwarzkopf/Szell recording. I think Lise Davidsen has made a very considerable recording of these great songs and the fact that the remainder of the programme is on the same exalted level just makes the disc all the more attractive. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia prove to be ideal and sympathetic partners at every turn

The engineer, Jonathan Stokes has recorded the performances expertly and in a most understanding way. Full justice is done to the orchestral canvas while Miss Davidsen’s voice is excellently balanced. This is a distinguished disc.

John Quinn