Two rock-star Norwegian classical musicians? Oh yes, and after the album release, the tour. The acclaimed disc of Grieg songs from Lise Davidsen and Leif Ove Andsnes provided the material for the first half of this recital tour of five cities in eight days (Berlin, Madrid, Munich, Vienna and finally London). Ironically enough, only Oslo had to be cancelled because of pandemic restrictions.

Leif Ove Ansdnes and Lise Davidsen
© Mark Allan | Barbican

“Never sing louder than lovely,” was the advice once given to Kathleen Ferrier, her teacher aware that volume can come at the expense of other qualities. Not the least of Lise Davidsen’s remarkable gifts is a seemingly untiring ability to take a big crescendo in her vocal stride, retaining good tone and accurate pitch. One would have to know these songs as well as she does to be sure every such moment is marked thus in the score, but they are always expressive of the sense of the music and text at that moment, as the well-designed Barbican surtitles made clear. The impact is often thrilling.

It can only be the Norwegian language that keeps Grieg on the margins for most song recitalists, for in fact that first half offered the best music, if the least familiar. Grieg’s Op.48 – to German texts – is a very consistent publication, with no weak song in the set of six. Of course they had supreme advocacy from Davidsen’s mastery of the idiom, and her feeling for the right degree of rubato, knowing when a line can be expressively stretched a half-beat. The alert Andsnes responded accordingly, as one with the soprano throughout. They hardly looked at each other, as Davidsen was looking at her audience very directly, engaging us in these lovely songs with both her vocal and her platform manner. This communicative skill peaked in the fifth and sixth songs, Zur Rosenzeit (The Time of Roses) and Ein Traum (A Dream) and sealed that experience of her singing to us, not just singing for us. 

Lise Davidsen
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Grieg claimed his song cycle Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid) contained his best songs, which makes it a great work. Davidsen introduced it as a tale of a nature-girl’s first love, first kiss, first hug. It ends with her first heartbreak, by a Schubertian babbling brook. With the first person speech of that poignant envoi Davidsen seemed to become the protagonist. Despite some passionate climaxes, both artists knew when not to do too much, but let the notes speak with just enough support from vocal and keyboard colour.

Few songs in the second half were as affecting as Haugtussa, but represented two composers who have provided Davidsen with signature operatic roles, Strauss and Wagner. The Strauss group had three of his extrovert outpourings, sung with soaring splendour, but it was the withdrawn rapture of Morgen! (Tomorrow!) that will linger in the memory. Andsnes was daringly slow, and exquisite in his phrasing, for its lovely prelude, so it was almost a surprise when Davidsen entered mid-phrase and her mezza-voce. Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder would perhaps not enjoy their prominence if a lesser name was attached to them but the soprano clearly believes in them and sang with the same commitment she showed throughout. 

Leif Ove Andsnes and Lise Davidsen
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The audience was a real part of the evening’s experience, with rapt attention and voluble enthusiasm. There were two brief encores – Strauss’s Zueignung (Dedication) and Grieg’s Jeg Elsker Dig!. That is translated on the CD as “I Love But Thee” – doubtless she says that to all her audiences, but the feeling here seemed mutual. And she never sang louder than lovely.