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Stream review

Lise Davidsen stunning in program of rarities for Vocal Arts DC

March 20, 2021
By Charles C. Downey
Soprano Lise Davidsen presented a streaming program for Vocal Arts DC, which is available through March 30. Photo: Ray Burmiston

Vocal Arts DC scored quite a coup in presenting the first Washington recital by Lise Davidsen this season. The pandemic scuttled the chance to hear the Norwegian singer live, but the high-quality video released today gives vivid proof that she is a dramatic soprano with all of the goods from top to bottom, wrapped in a lush vocal package. The sound is excellent, captured beautifully with pianist James Baillieu at the Guildhall School of Music in London.

One would have preferred hearing the soprano’s potent, winsome tone in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater rather than from a computer speaker. But that fallout from the coronavirus could have been far worse. In the midst of singing Leonore in Fidelio at the Royal Opera last March, Davidsen took ill, battling debilitating fatigue and losing her sense of smell and taste. An antibody test has since confirmed that the infection was due to Covid 19.

Confiding these details in brief comments between song sets, Davidsen made clear that the long year of lockdown has affirmed her musical vocation. The symptoms she experienced last year made her doubt her ability to endure, but the silence of sheltering at home confirmed that music was the thing that mattered most. Happily the coronavirus seems to have inflicted no lasting damage on her voice.

Davidsen carefully unwrapped the complex emotions in a set of Brahms songs, deploying her gleaming power as well as elegant refinement in phrasing and German diction. Baillieu kept the emotional parts of the accompaniments, as in the potentially maudlin harmonic progressions of “Mädchenlied,” intensely contained. Davidsen’s chest voice smoldered especially in “Von ewiger Liebe,” an indication of her early training as a mezzo-soprano.

The vocal tone gleamed and sparkled at the big finish of this song, but it could also darken to a glassy obsidian quality, with no weakness across a broad range. Baillieu consistently applied the correct amount of force at the keyboard to balance out his partner’s sound. (Curiously the video image disappeared for about ten seconds in the middle of the last Brahms song, but with no interruption to the sound.)

Unexpected selections clustered in the middle of this exquisite program, beginning with Schumann’s Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart. These five miniatures combine the fatal words of the doomed queen with austere music written when the composer was institutionalized. The video did not include subtitles, but it was easy enough to consult the program online.

Davidsen gave these often somber pieces a gorgeous sheen, especially in the prayer after the birth of the queen’s son and the bleak “Abschied von der Welt.” A recorded voice interjected solemnly before the last song, describing Mary’s execution. Davidsen made her response, a Latin imprecation for mercy, a brief but plangent plea.

Sibelius’s Luonnotar, a tone poem originally with orchestral accompaniment, served as the enigmatic heart of this recital. The Finnish text, drawn from the Kalevala, describes a hallucinatory encounter between the ocean goddess and a seabird, birthing an egg that brings forth the heavens and the stars.

Baillieu opened up the sound of the piano to orchestral breadth, supporting Davidsen’s forays into much higher range, all with shattering force and accuracy. The adventurous harmonic fabric combined with gorgeous melodic smoothness, spun out a daring tableau of musical and mythological depth. One can only hope that Davidsen records the work with orchestra soon.

A slightly more conventional but no less beautiful side of Sibelius came to the fore in the Five Songs of Op. 37. With consummate breath support and arching melodic line, Davidsen brought out the affecting character of each of these songs. The last song, “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote,” made a delightful climax, bristling with the anger of the abandoned woman and her critical mother.

Davidsen complemented these Finnish songs with music from her own country, three selections from Edvard Grieg’s Sechs Lieder, Op. 48. No sense of strain could be perceived in Davidsen’s careful restraint in the peaceful “Dereinst, Gedanke mein,” and “Zur Rosenzeit” pulsated with an effortlessly flowing and ebbing rubato. “Ein Traum” offered another ecstatic vista for the soprano’s voice to wander triumphantly.

Richard Strauss understood Davidsen’s vocal type and wrote for it with rich idiomatic skill, as the soprano herself acknowledged. Little surprise that the recital’s final set, devoted to this composer, was so good. Unflagging vocal strength and endless breath support impressed, but so did the careful unfolding of complex songs like “Malven,” with its constant melodic twists and harmonic surprises.

Davidsen’s steely power reinforced the unrestrained grief at the climax of “Befreit,” especially on the enormous crescendo on “weinen” in the last verse. In fact, placing “Cäcilie” last, the inevitable encore, felt like a letdown in some ways, although if Davidsen had responded to the nonexistent applause with more Strauss, this reviewer could have listened all night.

This concert can be streamed through March 30. vocalartsdc.org

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