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Lise Davidsen at Barbican review: the top soprano chose well for this beautiful recital

Even if clarity of diction was intermittent, the sheer beauty of tone was undeniable

Mark Allan
14 January 2022

uch is the acclaim for the Norwegian soprano Lisa Davidsen that expectations for every appearance are dangerously high. There’s no disputing that hers is a voice of supranatural beauty, uncommon potency, and underpinned by a technique that leaves you gasping with admiration. And yet, even while being overwhelmed by the emotional force of that voice when unleashed, it’s possible to harbour reservations. It’s a voice equipped to ride the orchestral flood in a Wagner or Strauss opera, but how suitable is it for the miniature genre of Lieder?

To some extent, that question was obviated in this judiciously chosen programme. Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder are midway between Lieder and opera, Grieg’s Haugtussa cycle, with its unfolding story of boy meets herd-girl and then abandons her, has a strongly dramatic thread, while Strauss was so in love with the female voice that he positively invites it to be flaunted.

For my taste, the most successful items were those where Davidsen and her outstanding collaborator, fellow Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, drew us with them into an inner world of hushed utterance. Wagner’s Der Engel, Im Treibhaus and Träume, Strauss’s Morgen and two or three songs from another collection, that of op. 48, were all high points, in inverse relation to their dynamic level. Here Davidsen’s exemplary breath control, her ability to spin a smooth legato line and to transfix the listener were all in evidence.

In Haugtussa too, the rapture of the couple embracing and kissing was powerfully evoked, Davidsen moving seamlessly from pianissimo to fortissimo in the space of just four bars. The realisation of an imagined love in A Dream from the op. 48 collection was also undeniably thrilling.

Mark Allan

So too was the ecstatic expression of romantic infatuation in Strauss’s Cäcilie, while the climaxes of Befreit, in which one ageing partner bids poignant farewell to a dying spouse, were properly moving, if a touch operatic. That tendency manifested itself elsewhere too. Davidsen will one day take on the big Wagner roles of Isolde and Brünnhilde – she’s wisely pacing herself – and they will doubtless be assumptions comparable with any in history. There are intimations of both roles in the Wesendonck Lieder, but it’s questionable whether this cycle really benefits from operatic-scale climaxes either. The clarity of diction was intermittent in many songs too, as though beauty of tone was being prioritised over response to the text.

Such quibbles will be treated with disdain by Davidsen’s many admirers and it’s fair to say that the artists were given a rapturous ovation. This was the first event in a Lise Davidsen Artist Spotlight series at the Barbican and adjacent venues, with more to follow at the end of May.