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Why is it that Grieg’s songs (he composed around 180 of them) are not considered basic repertoire for today’s singers? The booklet essay accompanying this disc makes the point that during his lifetime, and for some time afterwards, Grieg’s songs were well-known and were frequently heard in the recital room and in the drawing-room. The earliest surviving cylinder recording, made in 1888, is of his song God Morgen; but a cursory glance through the current CD catalogue reveals a relative dearth of recordings, those that do exist being concentrated among the Nordic labels, with almost exclusively Nordic singers. Yet the quality of the music is right up alongside the lieder of the finest masters of the genre – as is clear from this most welcome new disc from Hyperion. Swedish mezzo Katarina Karnéus gives a searing performance of Grieg’s song-cycle Haugtussa (similar in scope to Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben), which depicts a mountain girl’s first experiences of love and heartbreak. It’s enchanting, dramatic and intensely moving, and must surely represent one of the greatest song-cycles for female voice ever written. Grieg’s song-settings are not exclusively in Norwegian, as the six German settings from Op. 48 show; they deal with subjects ranging from uncomplicated pleasure and knowing coyness to sorrow and joyful ecstasy. Early Grieg is represented by his short Op. 5 settings of texts by Hans Christian Andersen, Hjertets melodier, where the influence of Schumann is perhaps most evident. Six Ibsen settings, including the well-known En svane [A swan] complete the programme. Karnéus and Drake give utterly committed performances throughout. They cover some of the repertoire recorded by Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg for Deutsche Grammophon in 1992 (now re-issued at mid-price); however, the singers’ voices are quite different in character, von Otter’s rounder and warmer, Karnéus’s darker and more alluring. Both discs are excellent – but for me, the heartfelt passion of Karnéus and Drake makes this disc unmissable.
Reviewed by Anne McAlister