Edvard Grieg set a number of texts from the epic poem "Haugtussa" by his countryman and near-contemporary Arne Garborg, and collected eight of them, from one just of the epic's many sections, in his song cycle Haugtussa. Norwegian composer Olav Anton Thommessen (born 1946) takes the songs by Grieg as well as the composer's other works and sketches and uses them as the basis for Veslemøy Synsk, his own 45-song, two-hour cycle covering the whole narrative of Garborg's epic. He writes in the program notes, "Grieg had enough material to complete a larger work based on the cycle; I have taken the liberty of doing the work for him." Thommessen is free and eclectic in his treatment of his source material; for some movements, like the seventh song, "Veslemøy," he uses Grieg's original almost as written, with only a few adjustments and embellishments. Other songs refract the music through such a distorted lens that it might not be recognizable as the work of the older composer. The pieces are unified, though, by an essentially melodic language that may occasionally use contemporary techniques like Sprechstimme, but that generally reflects the spirit of Grieg's characteristic lyricism. The individual songs are never less than intriguing, some bewitchingly lovely, and some devastatingly intense, and their cumulative effect can be overwhelming. The length of the cycle could be somewhat daunting for general listeners and the fact that even the composer admits that the poetry is untranslatable might limit its broad appeal, but it's a powerful work that should reward the attention of fans of new vocal music.
Mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland and pianist Nils Anders Mortensen, who gave the piece its premiere, are a terrific artistic team and they handle the music's daunting virtuoso demands with panache. When the protagonist enters the supernatural realm, Thommessen lets loose with extended vocal techniques that Kielland delivers with absolute conviction and frightening intensity; in songs like "Høgt hoppar den Haugmann" she sounds like a woman possessed. She invests the songs with such depth and the cycle's musical arc is so dramatic that the performance almost has the effect of an extended theatrical monodrama.
The sound of 2L's SACD is fabulous. It's immaculate but warm, with excellent balance and presence. The set includes a Blu-ray audio disc. The album was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance.