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SONGS IN SEASON
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Frühlingslied, op. 34/3
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Våren, op. 33/2
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)

Il giardino
Staffan STORM (b. 1964)

Ur "Våren på Djurgården" - Solomadrigal
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)

Nature, the Gentlest Mother, No. 1
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)

L’été
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Ablösung in Sommer
Hans GEFORS (b. 1952)

Förra sommorn
Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)

Sie sind so schön
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Automne, op. 18/3
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Es rauschen die Winde
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)

Before and after Summer, op. 16/2
Jan SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Arioso, op. 3
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Winter Evening, op. 54/7
Thomas JENNEFELT (b. 1954)

Isarna
Malena Ernman (mezzo-soprano), Francisca Skoogh (piano)
Recorded 8-11 January 2002, Studio 2, Sveriges Radio, Stockholm, Sweden
NYTORP MUSIK NYTORP6 [56:10]

I was thrilled by Malena Ernman’s CD of cabaret songs on BIS, but I did comment that I would have to suspend judgement on certain matters till I had heard her in "straight" repertoire. So here we are, and in spite of a few reservations I still think she’s a super singer, quite the equal of several more touted mezzos of the moment. She presents here a series of sixteen songs, four for each season, encompassing a wide range of styles (though the range of languages is not quite as great as it seems, since she sings Grieg in her native Swedish and Tchaikovsky in German). Each group ends with a piece written for this particular duo. The programme may seem a little short for a CD but if, as I suspect, this is a carefully planned recital programme the two artists have been taking around, I applaud their decision to keep it as it is.

Ernman has a strong voice with a contralto-like richness, but capable of an easy-sounding long high A in the Sibelius, and she has the ability to sing with or without vibrato as required. She is completely in control of what she does. But above all, she is a singer who takes risks. The opening song simply bursts into life (from the pianist, too), a far cry from the Mendelssohn beloved of Victorian drawing-rooms, and all the better for it. Compare her in Mahler with the excellent "normal" performance by Katarina Karnéus and Roger Vignoles (EMI) and hear how Ernman (a semitone higher) explodes with vitality. The downside of all this commitment is that she can lapse into the breathy, eager-little-girl manner favoured by Cecilia Bartoli, yet she shows, in the attractive Respighi piece, that she can spin a long bel canto line (her operatic roles include Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia). Her Fauré is also decidedly impressive, unexpectedly powerful at the beginning to make the tender passages later all the more melting. The rare pieces by Koechlin, Schreker and Liszt all make their point.

However, she does sometimes go over the top. When commenting on Monica Groop’s performance of the Grieg I queried whether it might not have been more legato. Ernman, at a tempo surely too fast for the composer’s Andante espressivo, is positively skittish, with a surprisingly staccato delivery. Maybe if you understand the language she is singing it has more point, but would not even her compatriots rather hear the beautiful melody sung as lovingly and tenderly as possible, as the great Aksel Schiøtz did?

The Copland is attractively handled, but a couple of mispronunciations have crept in. "Minutest" begins with "my", not with the "mi" of "minute" in the sense of a temporal unit, and "suffice" rhymes with "ice" not with "bliss". There are no mistakes of this kind in the Finzi but, oh dear, she and her accompanist think it’s an American cabaret song! Britishers used to the straight and narrow will have their hackles raised, but, setting aside all preconceptions, it is convincing in its own way, and foreigners might find themselves enjoying a piece by the British pastoral school at last.

Of the songs specially written, the composers of the first two seem to have been particularly struck by Ernman’s way with the cabaret repertoire. Unfortunately, Staffan Storm’s piece is little more than an accompanied recitation of a lengthy prose piece by Strindberg and its very limited musical interest is unlikely to appeal to those who have no Swedish. Frankly, I got more pleasure out of reading the text in English (all original texts and English translations are provided) than out of listening to the song. The latter two composers seem to have made a special study of the potentialities of Ernman’s voice and, if Jennefelt is relatively conventional, Catherina Backman’s piece is quite fascinating and deserves to be taken up by those (perhaps not many) able to do it.

In view of the real personality at work here, this finely recorded recital is very much more than the sum of its parts. I look forward eagerly to Malena Ernman’s next appearance on record – but I hope that, next time round, she will sing Grieg and Tchaikovsky in the original language.

Christopher Howell

Footnote

We have further information from Nytorp regarding the Grieg song:
There exist two variations of Norwegian, “old Norwegian” called Bokmål, and “new Norwegian” called Nynorsk. Malena sings in “old Norwegian”, and I think that the most common variation is Nynorsk. They sound totally different, and Bokmål actually sounds a lot like Swedish!



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