With the first chords, Roger Vignoles transported me into Schubert’s Vienna. His accompaniment throughout the recital was understated yet always solid as a rock. Meanwhile Miah Persson conveyed the drama inherent in each poem, every nuance of meaning, the full gamut of emotions with her glorious voice and convincing acting ability. “I love poems and in Lieder I love understanding and working with the text. Normally you do recitals in smaller halls and that means you can use your voice in a completely different way. A song is itself a mini-opera with a beginning, a middle and an end which you need to express and act out, but with Lieder, although you can use your operatic side, you can whisper and convey something through the tiniest details.” (An interview with Miah Persson from www.classicalsource.com) This recital was like a night at the opera, but with the added bonus of intimacy with a great performer with whom the audience could get up close and personal in the Gothic revival interior of the hall. As any friend of the Wigmore knows, it is as if you have been invited to share an evening of civilized entertainment in the home of a Victorian benefactor.
According to Gerald Larner’s excellent programme notes, Brahms once declared the first of Schubert’s two Suleika Lieder ‘the loveliest song ever written.’ It is particularly intriguing because the poem was written not by Goethe, as Schubert supposed, but by an otherwise unknown poet, Marianne von Willemer who exchanged passionate verses with Goethe in 1815. It represents a tribute to the erotic poetry of the 14th-century Persian poet, Hafiz, who writes of Suleika’s barely contained excitement at the anticipation of her lover’s return. Ganymed, the second song in Ms Persson’s sequence, is actually by Goethe and is another poem from the realm of sexual ecstasy, expressed by Schubert by the use of no less than eight modulations within the one song. Lied der Mignon is about the agony a woman feels when separated from her lover. Rastlose Liebe too is about the anguish love brings. Auf dem Wasser zu singen too has great poignancy, although it seems to be a contemplation on the existential concept of death following life just as a restless soul finally finds peace and attunement with nature. In the subsequent Rückert setting, Du bist die Ruh, it is through love itself that the protagonist achieves existential transcendence. Although an early Goethe setting, Gretchen am Spinnrade, in some senses represents the emotional apogee of Schubert’s songs describing the agony and the ecstasy of love. As Gerald Larner points out, the silence used for dramatic effect after ‘und ach, sein Kuß!’ could have prompted moral outrage in its day. Ms Persson sang the whole sequence beautifully and utterly convincingly, but Du bist die Ruh was outstanding because of the way she was able to float the phrases. Some singers have a lovely voice and need to be taught how to use it to its best advantage. It seems to me that Ms Persson is a musician who uses her instrument with consummate skill. She’s not afraid to push the envelope, to attempt the almost impossible and she carries us the audience with her because she has such musical integrity.
The shepherd on the rock broke up the programme nicely and, with the addition of Richard Hosford’s clarinet, a Lieder recital momentarily became chamber music. Ms Persson started the second half with six songs by Grieg. These for me were the highlight of the programme, probably because by now Ms Persson had convinced me that she has the voice for Richard Strauss. Again we were in the realm of romantic love which brings pain and pleasure in equal measure. I think it was in Die verschwiegene Nachtigall where I heard the shimmering, pulsating sound at the top of her voice which I found thrilling. She made her Salzburg debut as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier in 2004 and has reprised the role in many important houses, most recently at the Met. I think I’d like to see her in Intermezzo, that she might have the makings of a ‘Flott’ successor on some level. I will also say that, should you ever get the chance to hear the Grieg Sechs Lieder Op. 48 (1884-8), don’t miss them. They were dedicated to the Swedish soprano, Ellen Gulbranson who became famous as a Wagnerian soprano. This isn’t the Grieg who later loved to set Norwegian folksongs using modal harmonies, but in his own words a ‘more cosmopolitan’ composer. I found these settings captivating with their unexpected modulations and syncopation.
Ms Persson rounded off her programme with five songs in her native Swedish by Sibelius. Because of the complicated nature of Finland’s history, Swedish will have been Sibelius’ first language and he will have only learned Finnish when he went to school. Once again we were in the realm of the agony and torment of maidens in love, but suffused with the darkness of a Finnish winter night. These were songs about fading flowers, soft hands pricked by thorns, a lily blighted, tears and death. The last song, translated as The girl came from her lover’s tryst with the young girl in despair at her lover’s infidelity. It was a desperately sad and quiet note on which to end the recital, both musically and dramatically. It was quite a risk ending a recital this way without a barnstorming finish, but Ms Persson has the skills to bring it off.
Miah Persson is able to transport the audience to frozen landscapes, rocky hillsides, to the suffering of pre-Raphaelite maidens, to share the pain of loss – standing alone in front of Roger Vignoles’ piano on a dull evening in London, using just her voice and facial expressions. I can’t wait to see her take a major role in a Strauss opera in one of Europe’s main houses. I think her voice has greater potential than even she realizes.