These two albums are quite different on first look. But then they struck me as aligned in an interesting way. Edvard Grieg from soprano Lise Davidsen and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes explores a selection of the many songs the Norwegian composer wrote over his long career, with texts in Norwegian and German. Pianist Shani Diluka’s The Proust Album collects pieces by composers whom Proust loved and respected, many but not all of them French. On parts of this mostly instrumental set Diluka is accompanied by the Orchestre de chambre de Paris.
One Norse, one French; one showing how evocative texts inspired a popular composer, the other how a writer’s love of music helped inspire his timeless fiction.
Not incidentally, each also features a wonderfully imaginative pianist.
Lise Davidsen and Leif Ove Andsnes – Edvard Grieg
This album opens with Grieg’s only narrative song cycle. He thought very highly of the songs in Haugtussa, with their psychological and mystical themes. Lise Davidsen’s last album was called Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi; opera-goers will be able to see her this season at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. But listeners of the new album could be excused in perceiving her as a specialist in the lyrical songs of her countryman.
Big-voiced opera singers can overpower the relatively light, delicate music of song cycles, especially on recordings. Not Davidsen. With steely power and expressive grace over her whole range, she precisely limns the songs’ emotional range, whatever their qualities – from the smooth ease of the early Op. 25 songs and the excited charm of Grieg’s early Op. 5 hit “Jeg Elsker Dig!” to the soft gravity of the Op. 59 elegies and the urbane sophistication of the late “5 Songs” of Op. 69.
It’s hard to imagine a more assured performance of the dreamlike drama of the Haugtussa, and the same goes for the soft lyricism of “Ved Rundane” – the only selection from the “12 Songs” of Op. 33 on this 28-track CD. (Grieg wrote a lot of songs.) Perhaps it’s something to do with singing in Norwegian, but Davidsen’s diction feels as effortless as her coloration – it feels almost as if she’s speaking the lines to a friend.
On the other hand, she’s just as comfortable with Grieg’s Op. 48 settings of lyrics by romantic German poets. For a singer who’s being talked of as the next great Wagnerian soprano, that can only be a good thing. Just listen to the tragic drama of “Zur Rosenzeit” (“The Time of Roses”), the cry of a soul breaking with grief.
Meanwhile Leif Ove Andsnes, also Norwegian, and a star concert pianist with a burgeoning career, proves a sensitive interpreter and collaborator. His sparkling interpretations express the full beauty of Grieg’s piano parts. As the album’s crediting (and cover photos) indicate, the program feels like a duet concert, not one of a soloist with accompanist.
In fact, there are spots where I thought the piano could have been mixed a bit louder – Davidsen needs no help being heard.
Soon enough, if her career continues on its current trajectory, I’m sure even the folks who send out the Met’s fundraising letters will learn to spell the diva’s last name. (It’s a common enough error with Scandinavian surnames – it’s “Davidsen” with an e.)
Shani Diluka – The Proust Album
Pianist Shani Diluka’s musical homage to Proust begins with the rarely heard Piano Concerto in E by Reynaldo Hahn. I knew little of this early 20th-century composer’s music, aside from a couple of songs, so this efflorescent recording of this stunning concerto was a revelation. Hervé Niquet draws from the orchestra lush colors perfectly suited to the music, dialoguing with the piano in a way that reminded me of Rachmaninoff. But the music is as good-natured as it is romantic and serious.
The Concerto’s final movement opens with a “Rêverie.” On this thoughtfully programmed album Diluka follows with a lovely performance of Debussy’s “Rêverie.” An ensuing set of solo piano pieces includes music of Franck and of Debussy, whom Diluka interprets with an appealing, raw energy. There’s also a sprightly little waltz by Hahn and a touching piano transcription of “La Plainte d’Orphée” from Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice. Natalie Dessay joins Diluka for two songs by Fauré. (Dessay’s subdued “Au bord de l’eau” contrasts interestingly with Sabine Devieilhe’s more robust recent recording.
Diluka and violinist Pierre Fouchenneret collage a piece of conceptual art they title “Vinteuil’s Sonata” out of separate pieces by Hahn, Ysaÿe, and (via Kreisler) Chaminade. This is Diluka’s conjuring of the fictional sonata written by Proust’s fictional composer Vinteuil in In Search of Lost Time. Fouchenneret’s flowing phrasing is very French and quite a delight, and he has what is surely a crowd-pleasing skill in the violin’s extremely high register. In the novel, one particular phrase figures most prominently; Diluka leaves it to our imagination to pick out which one in these non-fictional selections she pictures in that role.
Revealing yet another talent, she also presents the premiere recording of her piano transcription of Fauré’s “Les Berceaux.” Her version is right in the spirit of the French romantic composers she features on the album.
Actor Guillaume Gallienne of the Comédie-Française reads passages from Proust over two more piano pieces by Hahn, a pairing far from accidental as Hahn and Proust were lovers in their respective youths and longtime friends thereafter. Hahn’s teacher Massenet too is represented on this big “family” of an album.
The Proust Album also offers the world premiere recording of a recently discovered “Nocturno” by Richard Strauss. In context, this impassioned and kaleidoscopic piece sounds as if it were in dialogue with Wagner’s “Elegy in A flat” which immediately precedes it – just one example of the thoughtfulness the pianist put into this enchanting set.