Heavy on Scandinavian Romanticism, Lisa Larsson’s song recital was just the right antidote for the midwinter gloom outside. Roland Pöntinen was her unretiring accompanist, making a strong case for equal sharing of the limelight. Starting with Four Songs in Swedish Folk Style by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and ending with three German folk songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), this was a generous, neatly parcelled programme. Its high spot was the Dutch première of Rolf Martinsson's Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson, composed especially for Ms Larsson. The composer, together with Mr Pöntinen, got the evening under way with an introduction. He initially chose the Dickinson texts because they are short, but was soon moved by the poet's years of housebound seclusion, contemplating nature through her window. The informality of this preamble set the tone for the evening, with the performers addressing the audience to announce minor programme changes and tie the songs together by theme or geography.

Lisa Larsson © Merlijn Doomernik
Lisa Larsson
© Merlijn Doomernik
The ardent simplicity of the Peterson-Berger songs immediately summoned the saturated greens of Northern summers. "Som stjärnorna på himmelen" (Like stars in the sky) is the most popular of the set, often performed on its own, but all the more poignant as part of the whole elegy for lost love. Mr Pöntinen’s rapt, strongly articulated playing vividly framed these nostalgic idylls. Ms Larsson’s winning stage presence and her earnest approach to the words meant that she always transmitted the right mood, here and througout the evening. Her silver-white soprano is full-bodied in the middle and has a plangent quality that dovetailed into much of the programme. In the playful Mahler songs the twinkle in her eyes was reflected vocally, although she lacked an easy trill in “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (In praise of higher understanding), in which a donkey judges a singing competition between a cuckoo and a nightingale. (The donkey stands for a music critic, so naturally the monotonous cuckoo wins.)

Ms Larsson can also suspend soft notes to great effect. Her voice opened up when called for, as in the rushes of passion in Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs, but the forte high notes tended to harden and sometimes pitch suffered. This being the intimate Recital Hall at the Concertgebouw, she could have probably got by with less volume, possibly gaining more grip at the top. Conjecture aside, the Berg songs had the fervour, if not the vocal sinuousness, required by the sensual poems. At the piano, Mr Pöntinen matched her focused intensity. Providing interludes between the longer song cycles, he first soloed in two movements from Sensommarnätter (Late Summer Nights) by Wilhelm Stenhammar. The Tranquillo e soave betrayed an underlying truculence and the stormy Presto agitato was executed with exhilarating brilliance. For the second interlude he chose an arrangement of Johan Strauss II’s Voices of Spring by the piano virtuoso Ignaz Friedman. Teased out into variations to show off the pianist’s chops, this version initially sounds like a parody, a boozed-up waltz in clogs. Towards the end, however, it finds its Viennese feet and burbles and swirls, in Mr Pöntinen’s hands very fluidly.

In addition to the "legitimate" cycles, Ms Larsson also presented, in her own words, a “love story with an unhappy end” told through songs by Edvard Grieg. She compiled the romance herself, including songs from Melodies of the Heart, Grieg’s declaration of love to his future wife, Nina Hagerup, and Solveig’s Song from Peer Gynt. Combining early and late works in non-chronological order, the cycle had a direct narrative and musical flow. Ms Larsson was at her best in reflective, melancholy songs sung at half-volume, such as the concluding song, “En svane” (A swan).

The Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson made a big impression and were warmly applauded. Lashed with dissonance, but predominantly tonal, they translate Dickinson’s brief lines into short musical phrases, often followed by musical word painting. The natural world is illustrated with a variety of rhythmic and harmonic means: a flourish for a bee, a descending postlude for lengthening shadows. The piano even imitates a real bobolink bird call. Originally, Mr Martinsson scored the work for a large orchestra with a wide array of instrumental colours, and this performance made one curious about that version. Curious, but by no means dissatisfied. Mr Pöntinen deserves high praise for extracting so many contrasting sounds and hues from the piano. Elsewhere, Ms Larsson’s clearly pronounced consonants at times diced her legato, but these songs played to her major strength – finding the feel of a piece and sending it across through the words. I would love to tell you which Swedish folk tune was the parting encore, but the best I can do is that it was a pensive song that might have contained the word “darling”, which probably does not really narrow it down.

***11