06 June 2019

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner & Richard Strauss — LISE DAVIDSEN SINGS WAGNER AND STRAUSS (Lise Davidsen, soprano; Decca 483 4883)

IN REVIEW: LISE DAVIDSEN SINGS WAGNER & STRAUSS (Decca 483 4883)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883) and RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Lise Davidsen sings Wagner and StraussLise Davidsen, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor [Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 28 – 29 September and 6 – 7 October 2018; Decca 483 4883; 1 CD, 63:55; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It can be argued—even, in this instance, by a member of their ranks—that a significant measure of the most mesmerizing magic of opera eludes Twenty-First-Century listeners. Ears that have heard the great voices of the past solely as digitalized streams of sound emanating from speakers or coursing through headphones can have only an imperfect understanding of the boundless energy of Lauritz Melchior’s Siegfried, the engrossing intimacy of Maria Callas’s Tosca, the visceral impact of Birgit Nilsson’s Turandot, and the crestfallen charm of Carlo Bergonzi’s Nemorino. Conscientious study and careful listening can deepen an acquaintance with opera’s past, but observation never equals experience. Just as some natural phenomena cannot be adequately described to those who have not seen them, there are musical marvels that can be fully appreciated only by those who heard them in the flesh. As it might be colloquially put, grasping the momentous importance of certain events in operatic history requires that you had to be there.

As the decades continue to separate listeners from the performers and performances that they cite as definitive, today’s singers are increasingly compared, often unfavorably, to artists whom neither they nor their analysts have ever heard except via recordings. There is always value in assessing the merits of an artist’s work in the context of similar achievements by acclaimed artists of prior generations, but is there any true validity in dismissing a singer’s interpretation of a piece or a rôle because it is judged to be inferior to a performance by a long-dead artist whose preeminence is now affirmed exclusively by recordings? Does the artistry of an aspiring Siegfried meaningfully benefit from the singer being said to be no Melchior by someone who never heard Melchior? Without neglecting the models of history, must it not be more nurturing to artists and advantageous to the continued vitality of opera to principally base assessments of singers upon their own efforts? Genuinely great artists rarely publicly disparage the work of their colleagues and successors: a component of their greatness is perhaps the realization that success should be determined by how accurately and appropriately a singer performs a piece of music, not by how closely that performance emulates another artist’s interpretation.

As vocal longevity is a crucial gauge of the efficacy of a singer’s technical foundation, it is premature to proclaim Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen the heir apparent to the legacies of her legendary predecessors in the repertoire sampled on this captivating Decca release, the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. As a Scandinavian singer with an affinity for works by Wagner and Strauss, it is inevitable that Davidsen will endure comparisons with other Nordic artists who similarly excelled, singers including fellow Norwegians Kirsten Flagstad and Ingrid Bjoner, Swedes Astrid Varnay, Birgit Nilsson, Berit Lindholm, and Siv Wennberg, and the Finn Anita Välkki. The collective influence of these artistic ancestors is unavoidable (and should not be avoided), but Davidsen has proved in her career to date to be a singer who approaches music without preconceptions. The extensive performance histories of the works on this disc are too consequential to be ignored, but Davidsen’s singing is that of an artist who is destined to create her own history.

It is indicative of Davidsen’s potential that, for her first recital disc, she was given the gift of collaborating with the Philharmonia Orchesta and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The prominence of music by Wagner and Strauss in her repertoire notwithstanding, Davidsen is a versatile artist: she demonstrated impressive mastery of late Classicism in her singing of the title rôle in the 2017 Wexford Festival production of Cherubini’s Medea, for example, and her Metropolitan Opera début, scheduled for 29 November 2019, will be as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya dama. Not least in his capacity as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor, Salonen’s work manifests a kindred artistic inquisitiveness, and he shares with Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein the boon of bringing a composer’s sensibilities to the podium.

In the performances on this disc, the same concentration on setting tempi that aid both composer and singer and supporting the voice by identifying its proper place within orchestral textures that characterize his conducting of a work like György Ligeti’s Le grand macabre also permeate his pacing of these pieces by Wagner and Strauss. The virtuosic panache with which the Philharmonia musicians respond to Salonen’s leadership is not surprising, but playing of this caliber on a recording of this nature is uncommon. Many fine recital discs have been recorded with merely competent orchestras and conductors. Nonetheless, a Monet canvas looks out of place in a mass-produced frame, and Salonen and the Philharmonia offer Davidsen’s musical portraiture the opulent presentation it deserves.

On 25 July 2019, Davidsen will expand her Wagnerian credentials when she débuts at the Bayreuther Festspiele as Elisabeth in a new production of Tannhäuser. Anticipating that milestone, she launches this disc with a radiant account of the music with which Elisabeth makes her entrance at the start of Act Two, ‘Dich, teure Halle, grüß ich wieder.’ The immediacy of her singing fosters a rush of theatrical energy, plausibly imparting to the listener the irrepressible excitement of an earnest young woman greeting the space in which her future is to be determined. The soprano’s voice retains its rich patina and certain intonation from the bottom of the range to her sonorous top B.

Some Elisabeths are comfortable either in ‘Dich, teure Halle’ or in the exquisite prayer to the Madonna in Act Three, ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau! Hör mein Flehen.’ Davidsen sings the latter as beguilingly as she sings the former, the expressivity of her vocalism enhanced by the eloquence of her phrasing. Every listener who believes that the essence of Wagner’s aesthetic is bombast without beauty should hear ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau.’ Listeners who believe that singing Wagner’s music requires power at the expense of pulchritude should hear Davidsen’s singing of Elisabeth’s music.

One of the most-discussed opera productions of 2018 was Katie Mitchell’s evocatively modern staging of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, the musical nucleus of which was Davidsen’s beautifully-sung, movingly unaffected portrayal of the Prologue’s Prima donna and the mythological heroine into whom she metamorphoses in the Opera. The dramatic profile of Davidsen’s interpretation of her rôles in the Aix-en-Provence Ariadne auf Naxos transitioned from the aloof but slyly endearing singer of the Prologue to the despondent but dignified woman scarred by betrayal.

It is a woman of genuine psychological depth rather than a one-dimensional archetype who emerges in the soprano’s account of Ariadne’s monologue ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ on this disc. She displays an invaluable talent for using vocal effects to complement the emotional subtexts of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words, but it is the confident ecstasy of her handling of Strauss’s music that bewitches. Singing forcefully when the composer so dictates, she never forces the voice. Ariadne has been sung credibly by voices as diverse as those of Maria Reining, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Leontyne Price, and Montserrat Caballé. Davidsen’s performance of ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ amalgamates the best traits of Ariadnes of the past with her own distinct artistry.

Composed and first published in 1894, the four Lieder that constitute Strauss’s Opus 27 were initially devised with piano accompaniment and later orchestrated by the composer. These are four of Strauss’s most familiar songs, but Davidsen does not rely upon tradition to supply interpretive nuances. Rather, she is guided by the texts, finding within the words of each Lied its musical and sentimental cadences. She voices ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ with ethereal grace, her tones unerringly placed and seemingly effortless. Strauss orchestrated ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ in 1948, contemporaneously with his composition of his Vier letzte Lieder, and the kinship between the works is here made poignantly conspicuous. In their performance of ‘Cäcilie,’ Davidsen and Salonen faithfully observe Strauss’s ‘Sehr lebhaft und drängend’ marking, producing an account of the song that rivals long-praised recordings of the piece.

Robert Heger’s orchestration of ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ receives a reading that feels both profoundly personal and aptly timeless, soprano and conductor fostering an environment of musical symbiosis in which their trust of one another—and of the music—yields unfiltered emotional directness. At least two recordings of Strauss conducting his orchestral arrangement of ‘Morgen!’ survive, and the performance on this disc has much in common with the earlier of Strauss’s recordings, a 1941 traversal with tenor Julius Patzak. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s artful playing of the violin solo echoes the subtleties of Davidsen’s navigation of the song’s melodic line. Like Patzak, Davidsen lends the song an understated urgency, voicing the words ‘und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen’ with compelling probity.

‘Wiegenlied,’ the first of the five Lieder of Opus 41, was completed in 1899, the year in which Strauss’s much-admired tone poem Ein Heldenleben was first performed. The atmosphere of the song could hardly be more different from that of the tone poem, but Davidsen finds in the lullaby a vain of slumbering heroism that her unwavering intonation awakens. A setting of a text by Swiss writer Betty Wehrli-Knobel, the song ‘Malven,’ composed in November 1948, was the last piece that Strauss completed. Instead of submitting the piece for publication, the composer presented the manuscript to Maria Jeritza, the Moravian soprano who created the title rôle in Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Unknown until after Jeritza’s death in 1982, ‘Malven’ was given its public première by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Martin Katz in 1985. Wolfgang Rihm’s orchestration is employed for Davidsen’s performance of the song, which glows with the ‘himmlischen Licht’ evoked by the text.

The culmination of the composer’s career-long passion for the soprano voice, Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder were completed in 1948, when their creator was eighty-four years old, and first performed on 22 May 1950, eight months after Strauss’s death. To view the Vier letzte Lieder from the perspective of Strauss’s most enduringly popular opera, Der Rosenkavalier, the songs have been sung in the seven decades since their première by Marschallins, Octavians, and Sophies, but the task of introducing the songs to the public was entrusted in fulfillment of one of Strauss’s final wishes to Kirsten Flagstad.

Despite the recommendation of the doyen of German repertory at The Metropolitan Opera, Artur Bodanzky, that the Marschallin be among the rôles that she should prepare before offering her services in New York, Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio and Gluck’s Alceste were the only parts in operas not by Wagner that Flagstad ultimately sang at the MET. Strauss greatly admired Flagstad but had not heard her voice since conducting a 1933 Bayreuth performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in which she was the soprano soloist. In the subsequent fifteen years, Flagstad’s instrument had lost some of its youthful flexibility. When Flagstad sang the first performance of the Vier letzte Lieder in 1950, hers was the voice of a late-career Brünnhilde and Isolde, heavier than a voice like that of the composer’s wife Pauline for which the Lieder were likely conceived, but the beauty and earnestness of her singing, qualities that overcome the poor sound of the recording of the occasion, revealed the wistful glories of the penultimate fruit of Strauss’s musical storytelling.

Flagstad’s colleagues in the world première of Vier letzte Lieder were the Philharmonia and celebrated conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Under Salonen’s direction, today’s Philharmonia musicians play Strauss’s score with a synthesis of Romanticism and modernity. Salonen does not overlook the fact that, though they are resolutely tonal and accessibly tuneful, the Lieder are mid-Twentieth-Century works, written in the year that Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw were first performed.

The Lieder are here performed in the sequence that has become customary rather than the order in which Flagstad sang them, beginning with ‘Frühling.’ Though its companions remained in her repertoire, Flagstad did not return to ‘Frühling’ and substituted the G two tones lower for its top B in the première. As in ‘Dich, teure Halle,’ Davidsen soars to the B exultantly. The vernal lightness that challenges the prevailing melancholy of the Lieder is only partially realized, but the freshness of the soprano’s singing appealingly brightens the soundscape. Horn soloist Nigel Black contributes hauntingly to a sublime reading of ‘September’ in which Davidsen’s vocal depiction of the warmth of Indian summer is gradually muted by the words’ crepuscular sobriety.

Visontay’s violin is a source of comforting beauty in ‘Beim Schlafengehen.’ The expressive acuity of Davidsen’s performance here reaches its apex, the voice engaging in a duet of such tender discourse that the ears almost attribute words to the horn’s replies. Few composers have evinced the resigned relief of a wanderer at a journey’s end more serenely than Strauss did in ‘Im Abendrot.’ Salonen and Davidsen dedicate themselves to serving the text without surrendering to the temptation to impose metaphysical complexities on Strauss’s musical treatment. At its core, this is simple music, its meandering harmonies progressing inexorably to the fading trills with which it gives way to silence. Rather than battling the orchestra as some singers do, Davidsen listens to the instruments’ voices and adds her sound to the theirs like a bird joining a flock migrating towards an inviting sunset. This is not easy music, however, and Davidsen deftly and intrepidly meets its demands; an accomplishment of which only an excellent voice bolstered by a superlative technique is capable.

Nordic voices are often said to possess a timbral coolness that recalls the frigid climates that nourished them, but Scandinavia is also the land of the Northern Lights. It is this blazing wonder of nature that the singing on this disc mirrors. Virtually every listener has personal favorite interpreters of the music on this awe-inspiring disc, and the intention of this release undoubtedly is not to mimic or supplant them. This is a recording that should be appraised on its own terms, not as a competitor but as a peer of the great recordings of the past. With these dazzling performances of music by Wagner and Strauss, Lise Davidsen exclaims to the world, ‘Hier bin ich!’

IN REVIEW: Soprano LISE DAVIDSEN in the title rôle of Festival d'Aix-en-Provence's 2018 production of Richard Strauss's ARIADNE AUF NAXOS [Photograph by Pascal Victor / artcompress, © by Festival d'Aix-en-Provence]Strauss songstress: soprano Lise Davidsen in the title rôle of Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s 2018 production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos
[Photograph by Pascal Victor / artcompress, © by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence]