Norwegian dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad was unique in her ability to combine world class interpretations of mostly Wagnerian roles with equally distinguished lieder singing. This does not go for all – the lieder recordings of her contemporary Birgit Nilsson, for instance, are few and neglectable. But with Flagstad, vocal opulence went hand in hand with musical intelligence and a profound understanding of text and language. Young Norwegian Isa Katharina Gericke has seized on the opportunity of building a programme around Flagstad’s lieder repertoire, and in preparation for a recording presented a thoroughly enjoyable recital at Stockholm’s Allhelgonakyrkan together with pianist Bengt Forsberg.

Isa Katharina Gericke © Jan Erik Fillan
Isa Katharina Gericke
© Jan Erik Fillan

Although Gericke’s voice does not possess the dramatic heft of the likes of Kirsten Flagstad, her lyric soprano possesses beauty and a wide range of colors. Add to this her striking charisma and joy of singing, and you have a worthy interpreter of the Flagstad song treasure, who in Bengt Forsberg has found the perfect musical partner. Delicacy of touch and acute sensitivity to the micro-drama of lieder are Forsberg’s specialty, in addition to a fondness for forgotten repertoire. Even so, fine musicianship can’t remedy the fact that too many of the songs chosen lack substance. After nearly two hours of charming but forgettable post-Romantic scenes, one longs for drama or provocation. Add to this the slightly frustrating fact of nearly – but not entirely – understanding what Gericke sings. Despite her fine diction, trying to follow the lyrics of a series of completely unknown Norwegian songs for two hours, without printed texts at hand becomes too much of a challenge.

Nevertheless, the evening offered a number of delightful surprises. Gericke introduced the programme with wit and insight, making apparent how many admirers and friends Flagstad made throughout her career. Thus, the songs on the first half were composed by critics – all of whom presented her with songs shortly after reviewing her recitals. The amorous set of songs by Sverre Jordan contrasted with the weightier, more obviously post-Wagnerian songs of Knut Håkanson. The latter died quite young, but nevertheless managed to write songs of great beauty; it was interesting to hear his setting of J.L. Runeberg’s  Flickan kom från sin älsklings möte (The girl returned from her lover’s tryst), more famously set by Jean Sibelius and Wilhelm Stenhammar.

Following a pianistic rendition of Franz Liszt's transcription of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, perhaps Flagstad’s most famous showpiece, Gericke wrapped up the evening with a set of lovely songs by Arne Dörumsgaard and Alf Hurum. Abundant with word painting and folkloristic accents, a song such as Dörumsgaard’s Regn (Rain) and Hurum’s Det var en deilig hane (There was a gorgeous cockerel) prove humorously illustrative of the sounds of nature. Liten Kirsten (Little Kirsten) which concluded the recital, seemed an affectionate homage to the great singer whose voice and musicianship even today make her tower above the rest.

In between the songs of the second half, Gericke also made a case for Flagstad’s relative innocence when it comes to political matters. Case in point, the incomparable Wagnerian singer was deprived of her passport and Norwegian citizenship for over a year due to her husband’s Nazi sympathies, and was thereafter subjected to public persecution implying her personal involvement in political matters. Eventually Flagstad rose above the slander and moved on to become the first opera director in of the Norwegian National Opera. 

One must not forget how significant Flagstad was when it comes to building an icon out of Edvard Grieg, the only composer actually missing from Gericke’s programme. Therefore, it seems fitting when Gericke made a single exception to her rule of picking unknown repertoire, when presenting Grieg’s celebrated Våren (Springtime) as an encore. Oddly, this is when it became clear why she had not included more standard fare in her programme: the phrases were short and chopped, rather than the long, spun arches which propel the tragedy which lies behind Vinje’s poem. The shadow of death and illness eluded Gericke, who brought nothing but a smile to her interpretation.

Nevertheless, the great warmth of this singer; her passion – and the passion and skill of pianist Bengt Forsberg - for the repertoire of Kirsten Flagstad made the evening worthwhile. Add to this the fact that Allhelgonakyrkan, this turn of the century gem with it painted wooden ceiling, is the perfect setting for a lieder recital on this theme. 

***11