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Lise Davidsen & Leif Ove Andsnes

In the left of the image Leif Ove Andsnes is looking to his right slighty, holding his left hand with his right. In the right of the image Lise Davidsen is smiling and looking to her left, holding the neckline of her jumper.

How fitting that two of Norway’s greatest musicians should be coming together for a programme centred around the country’s most celebrated composer, Edvard Grieg, writes Harriet Smith.

But also being celebrated today are female muses, without whom none of the music being performed would exist. In the case of Grieg, it was his first cousin Nina, whom he first met aged 20 in 1863 and married four years later. Today we may be more familiar with Grieg as a composer of orchestral and piano music, but his songs (around 180 of them) are a veritable treasure trove.

Grieg himself wrote: ‘I loved a young woman with a marvellous voice and an equally marvellous gift as an interpreter. This woman became my wife and … has been … the only true interpreter of my songs.’ Haugtussa (‘The Mountain Maid’) is, sadly, Grieg’s only narrative song-cycle. It sets a verse-novel published in 1895 by Arne Garborg and, if it follows in a tradition as defined by Schubert and Schumann, the result is quite different. Grieg’s excitement when he first encountered Garborg’s poems is demonstrated by the speed with which he wrote Haugtussa, completing it within the year. The episodes Grieg chose to set follow the eternal story of girl-meets-boy, girl-falls-for-boy, girl-suffers-heartache. Our hapless heroine is the herd-girl Veslemøy and, as she professes her sadness beside a babbling mountain brook in the final song, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. Above and beyond the apparently simple storyline, though, is the potency with which Grieg evokes both nature and human emotions. From the previous decade come Grieg’s Six Songs, Op 48. These are settings of leading German writers, including Goethe and Heine, and mark his first return to German poetry since his earliest songs. Common to all the settings are the subjects that preoccupied most 19th-century writers, entwining of love, nature and the seasons.

A year after Grieg met his wife and muse, Richard Strauss was born. And he also married his muse – Pauline de Ahna, a professional soprano for whom he composed a rich seam of songs during their long, if tempestuous marriage. The bouquet Strauss presented to his new wife on their wedding day would prove to have a beauty far more enduring than any posy of flowers. His four songs that form Op 27, of which Lise Davidsen and Leif Ove Andsnes perform three, are among the best known and most beautiful in his entire song output and they represented a new departure for the composer in setting contemporary poets. ‘Cäcilie’ was actually written just a day before his wedding (which took place on 10 September 1894). And ‘Morgen!’, with its great sense of optimism, and a subtlety in the way the voice enters almost unobtrusively over the piano accompaniment, needs little introduction. It sets a poem by John Henry Mackay, who as Scottish-born but lived in Germany. The fact that he was homosexual gives a poignancy to the text, which expresses the hope of being reunited once more with his beloved. There’s another rapturous expression of love in ‘Befreit’ from five years later, though there’s tragedy too, for it emerges that the poet is addressing his dying wife.

Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder (1857–8) were also inspired by a muse, but in his case things were – as so often with this composer – more emotionally entangled than with Strauss and Grieg. Wagner found himself on the wrong side of the law when, after the 1849 Uprising in Dresden, his position became, as they say, untenable. He was forced to flee, initially to Weimar and then onto the safely of Switzerland. Here he found financial support from a successful silk merchant named Otto Wesendonck, who gave him financial assistance, including the use of a cottage in his estate outside Zurich. There Wagner moved with his wife Minna, but unfortunately Otto’s wife Mathilde, both gifted and attractive, caught his eye and they embarked on a tumultuous affair. Though things didn’t end well, without their relationship we would not have the Wesendonck Lieder. Mathilde had shared with Wagner some of her poetry, and his five settings perfectly match the intensity of the texts. Mathilde later recalled in her memoirs the way Wagner’s music lent them ‘a supreme transfiguration and consecration’. In tone the songs are in the same heightened language as his music drama Tristan und Isolde, on which he was working around the same time. What is remarkable too is the way that, even in their original incarnation for voice and piano, the ardent headiness of the writing comes across with great immediacy.

© Harriet Smith

Programme and performers

Edvard Grieg Six Songs, Op 48
1. Gruss (Greeting)
2. Dereinst. Gedanke mein (One Day, O Heart of Mine)
3. Lauf der Welt (The Way of the World)
4. Die verschwiegene Nachtigall (The Nightingale’s Secret)
5. Zur Rosenzeit (The Time of Roses)
6. Ein Traum (A Dream) 
Edvard Grieg Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid)
1. Det syng (The Enticement)
2. Veslemøy (Young Maiden)
3. Blåbær-Li (Blueberry Slope)
4. Møte (The Tryst)
5. Elsk (Love)
6. Killingdans (Kidlings’ Dance)
7. Vond dag (Hurtful Day)
8. Ved gjaetle-bekken (At the Brook)
Richard Strauss 4 Lieder, Op 27
1. Ruhe, meine Seele! (Rest thee, my Soul)
2. Cäcilie
4. Morgen! (Tomorrow!)
Richard Strauss 5 Lieder, Op 39
4. Befreit (Released)
Richard Wagner Wesendonck Lieder
1. Der Engel (The Angel)
2. Stehe still (Be still)
3. Im Treibhaus (In the Greenhouse)
4. Schmerzen (Sorrows)
5. Träume (Dreams)

Lise Davidsen soprano

Leif Ove Andsnes piano

Six Songs


Richard Strauss Lieder

Wesendonck Lieder

Artist Biographies