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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Bengt Forsberg (piano)
rec. March 1992 Stockholm, Kgl, Musikaliska Akademiens, stora sal.
Texts and English translations included
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 476 1815 [67:32]

This disc is far from new: the sessions took place in 1992. Inexplicably, though, it passed me by when it was first released so I was delighted to find that Presto Classical have licenced it for their on-demand service. I do recall that the disc was met with widespread acclaim when it first appeared: indeed, in 1993 it was the first solo vocal album to win the Gramophone magazine’s Record of the Year award.

Anne Sofie von Otter was a few weeks short of her 37th birthday when these sessions took place and her career was already well and truly established with debuts at Covent Garden, the Met and La Scala already behind her. My goodness, her voice was in peak condition for these sessions and, cutting to the chase, every aspect of her singing here gives great pleasure. It’s also noticeable how strong is her rapport with pianist Bengt Forsberg. Theirs is now a celebrated recital and recording partnership, though I don’t know for how long they’d been working together when this disc was made.

Grieg composed nearly 200 songs so what we have here is just a small selection, but the choice has been discerningly made. For example, Anne Sofie von Otter includes two of the four songs from Hjertets Melodier (Heart’s Melodies), Op 5 (1864). Apart from their intrinsic worth, these songs are significant because they were Grieg’s first foray into song-writing using Danish rather than German texts: the set consists of four poems by Hans Christian Andersen. Annotator Finn Benestad points out that these songs were intended to express the composer’s feelings for his fiancée, Nina Hagerup. The two that Ms von Otter has selected are both good ones but the second, ‘Jeg elsker Dig’ (I love you) is something special – as is the present performance. The setting is sincere and touching. It may only be a short song but Grieg packs a lot of feeling into it.

Though he’d set Danish poetry in Op 5, Grieg didn’t forsake setting German poems. His Op 48, which we hear in full, consists of six songs to poems by divers German poets. The set, published in 1889, is delightful. Frequently, I was put in mind of Schumann – no bad thing. I very much liked ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ (One day, my thought’) which is a gravely beautiful, poetic composition. Anne Sofie von Otter sings it with rapt concentration. In a completely different vein is ‘Lauf der Welt’ (The Way of the World); her delivery of this little song is charming. ‘Ein Traum’ (A Dream) is one of Grieg’s best loved songs, and no wonder. Here again, I detect the beneficial influence of Schumann. It receives a gorgeous performance; singer and pianist build it to a rapturous conclusion.

We also hear two of the Op 33 songs. These are from a set of twelve, all of which use poems by Aasmund Olavson Vinje. It seems that Grieg’s imagination was fired by these poems because, according to the notes, he wrote all of them in just a few weeks in 1880. I particularly liked ‘Våren’ (Spring). This is a very expressive song and it’s beautifully done here, with lots of shading, both in the vocal line and the piano part. There’s also a super performance of ‘Fra Monte Pincio’ (From Monte Pincio), one of the Op 39 Romances (1870) and a treasurable account of ‘En svane’ (A Swan). The latter is one of six songs that Grieg composed in 1876 to texts by Henrik Ibsen.

The programme opens with Grieg’s only song cycle, Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid) Op 67. This consists of eight songs to poems by the Norwegian poet, Arne Garborg. In fact, as Finn Benestad explains, Grieg contemplated setting no less than twenty of the poems in all but only eight were published in 1898; the others remained in sketch form only. The poems selected by Grieg might be said to comprise elements of Frauenliebe und -Leben and of Die Schöne Müllerin. The cycle illustrates the eager feelings of a girl for her young man, her sadness when he abandons her, and the solace she achieves in the last song ‘Vet Gjætle-Bekken’ (At Gjætle Brook).

This performance is superb. The first song, ‘Det syng’ (Enticement) follows a pattern in that the first half of each stanza is set to quite bold music and then the music in the remaining part of each stanza is gently reassuring. Ms von Otter sings those second halves exquisitely, while Bengt Forsberg’s pianism is equally sensitive. In the third song, ‘Blåbær-Li’ (Blueberry slope’), Anne Sofie von Otter characterises each verse winningly until, in the final verse, she muses contentedly on the man of her dreams. She and Forsberg build the next song, ‘Møte’ (The Encounter) excitingly, illustrating the eagerness of the young girl through to the rapturous ending. It all starts to go wrong in the seventh song, ‘Vond Dag’ (Sorrowful Day) when the young man doesn’t turn up, as he’d promised, to meet her again. Here, Ms von Otter conveys ideally the melancholy and disappointment in the poem and in Grieg’s music. Finally, she seeks solace by the side of the brook. Forsberg plays the rippling accompaniment beautifully while von Otter’s singing is perfectly poised. Between them, these two artists give a memorable account of these songs. These are eight fine songs, outstandingly performed, and, frankly, the disc would be worth buying just for Haugtussa.

Once or twice in the past I’ve felt that Anne Sofie von Otter’s singing seemed a bit on the cool side. Maybe I caught her on an off day; more likely, I was having an off day. Anyway, there’s no question of coolness here; her engagement with all twenty-five of these songs is complete, whether the mood is light hearted or serious. Her voice is beautifully produced throughout its compass and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing her. Bengt Forsberg’s contribution is no less admirable. There were many occasions during my listening when I noted down an example of finesse in his playing and there is never any doubt that he is ‘with’ his singer at all times. This is an intuitive partnership but also one that’s clearly founded on intensive work together on the music. The performances sound as fresh today as on the day they were recorded.

DG’s recording, engineered by Rainer Maillard, still sounds handsome; in particular, the balance between voice and piano has been expertly judged. The documentation is very good: all the texts and English translations are provided while Finn Benestad’s booklet essay is very helpful.

If, like me, you’ve missed out on hearing this disc up to now, it’s an omission you should seek to rectify as soon as you can. This recital is as rewarding as it is enjoyable.

John Quinn

Haugtussa Op 67 [25:44]
Seks Sange Op 48 [14:30]
Seks Digte af Henrik Ibsen, Op 25
En svane [2:41]
Med en vandlilje [2:03]
Fern Digte af John Paulsen, Op 26
En Håb [1:54]
Tolv Melodier til Digte af Aasmund Olavsson Vinje, Op 33
Våren [5:21]
Digte af Vilhelm Krag Op 60
Mens jeg venter [2:08]
Barnlige Sange, Op 61
Lok [0:46]
Tolv Melodier til Digte af Aasmund Olavsson Vinje, Op 33
Langs ei Å [2:05]
Romancer Op 39
Fra Monte Pincio [4:52]
Hjertets Melodier af H. C. Andersen, Op 5
To brune Øjne [1:05]
Jeg elsker Dig [1:39]
Seks Digte af Holger Drachmann, Op 49
Forårsregen [2:44]

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