Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

Hamstrung Handel

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Review on November 28, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Handel’s Altos – Music for Countertenor & Castatro (Wigmore Hall, Tuesday 27 November 2012)

Iestyn Davies (Countertenor)
Alexis Kossenko (Recorder, flute)
Jean-Marc Goujon (Recorder)
Neil Brough (Trumpet)

Ensemble Matheus
Jean-Christophe Spinosi (Conductor)

Iestyn Davies opened his residency at Wigmore Hall – A Singularity of Voice after the biography of Alfred Deller – with a concert inspired by selections from oratorios and three arias from Partenope together with instrumental selections from Handel and Telemann.

Iestyn Davies is – personally – one of the leading countertenors performing today. He has a wonderfully rich timbre, even and resonant with a sure-footed technique that cuts through even the most devilish divisions written by Handel. And what was particularly stunning last night was his complete control of dynamics and vocal light and shade in his singing. Marvellous.

So it was disappointing that this inaugural concert took a while to settle down and ultimately didn’t quite gel.

Not through any fault of Mr Davies.

The opening piece, Eternal Source of Light Divine, so ravishingly performed only last week at OAE’s Nightshift, sounded distinctly hesitant and ragged under Spinosi’s direction. Indeed intonation and inconsistent playing seemed to be Ensemble Matheus default position for most of the evening and was clearly a distraction not only sitting in the audience but it seems for Davies himself.

Eternal Light simply failed to shine. Indeed Davies looked almost ‘discomforted’.

The remaining arias in the first half of the concert were delivered with increasing measures of success. Davies was much more secure in Their Land Brought Forth Frogs from Israel in Egypt but again Spinosi’s players played the notes with some rhythmic indistinction and poorly attuned ensemble playing. This was particularly noticeable in the middle section of The Peasant Tastes The Sweets of Life from Joseph and his Brethren with the continuo player had clear intonation problems.

By the fourth aria Davies seems more in control – perhaps a sharp word in the green room between appearances? – and the selections from Jephtha and Semele were much more decisive and alert. The figurative melisma in Up The Dreadful Steep Ascending (Jephtha) were thrown off with great confidence by the countertenor and Despair No More Shall Wound Me from Semele was a suitable tour de force to end the first half.

Spinosi also included the overture and Sinfonia from Handel’s Xerxes in the first half. For some reason – and I don’t buy the programme notes line about “optional at all – there were no oboes present on the stage. This led to a distinct lack of colour, piquancy and weight in the overture. An ill-conceived decision.

The second half opened with the cantata Splenda in Alba when Ensemble Matheus were supplemented with additional flutes but despite a reference in the programme note, still no oboe. Davies sailed through this relatively unknown cantata with ease. His voice was clarion clear and he sang the arias with beautifully poised affection.

The Ensemble then performed a well-executed if bland performance of Telemann’s Concerto in e minor for flute, recorder and strings. At this point Spinosi returned to the stage violin in hand and in a rather affected manner seemed to take an age to tune. Distracting. It’s a wonderful concerto but failed to grip me. I was not a fan of Kossenko’s over-blousy recorder timbre and while both soloists were technically proficient there was a distinct lack of character in their playing. As I said it was a well-executed performance but didn’t seem to delve into the richness of Telemann’s music full as his music is with the baroque Affections. And the gypsy-inspired foot-stamping by the ensemble in the final movement seemed more contrived that the result of infectious and joyous music making.

Davies closed the concert with three arias from Partenope. Again he was slightly let down by his orchestral players. Sento amor was spun out with great delicacy, with Davies demonstrating he most perfect skill in delivering Handel’s wonderful arcing phrases. And his musical intelligence and sensitivity was underlined here – as in other arias of the evening – with beautifully placed ornamentation on the da capo return. But the wonderful Ch’io parta was marred by what can only be described as turgid playing leading the aria to drag and undermining the simplicity of this aria. And again the continuo cellist suffered from intonation problems in the middle section.

Fittingly, if not chronologically correct, Iestyn closed the concert with the firework-laden Furibondo spira il vento. As well relishing the coloratura of this aria, Davies revelled in delivering with bell-like clarity the vocal leaps and bounds. Suitably the audience roared their approval.

The encore was the beguiling, almost Galant-style Un zefiro spirò from Rodelinda. Once again Davies sang in pure, honeyed tone, beautifully spinning out the triplet melismas with great delicacy. Sadly it was ever so slightly undermined by dodgy intonation once again from the continuo cellist although full plaudits to the wonderful harpsichord playing.

So perhaps not a completely auspicious start to this innovative residency but again not due to any lack of musical brilliance on the part of Iestyn Davies. Without a doubt he was vocally and musically on top form but his performance was undermined – if not marred – by Spinosi and Ensemble Matheus.

Having most recently enjoyed his Arias for Guadagni with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo, I only regret that they weren’t the ensemble on stage with this amazingly talented countertenor at Wigmore Hall.

Aria for … Saturday – Ecco l’orrido campo (Un Ballo in maschera)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera, Verdi on November 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

Whatever happened to Susan Dunn? A soprano in the spinto tradition I have two discs of her singing. The first, from which this aria comes, is a disc of Wagner and Verdi together with Beethoven’s Ah, Perfido! conducted by Riccardo Chailly. The second is the First Act only – sadly as it is a brilliant recording – of Die Walküre in the role of Sieglinde with Klaus König and Peter Meven conducted by Maazel who surprisingly is an intuitive Wagnerian.

Ms Dunn has both formidable technique and a formidable instrument. Her voice is bright and evenly controlled throughout its range. What’s more she has a thrilling burr – almost a growl in fact – at the lower end of her register that she uses with telling effect. And all this is coupled with strong diction.

In this particular aria from Un Ballo in maschera – as well as throughout the recital CD – she deploys all these skills and her innate musicianship to amazing effect. This can be a cruel aria to perform and on more than one occasion I have seen a soprano catch themselves by failing to navigate it with due care as in parts the vocal line is cruelly exposed. This isn’t the case with Ms Dunn. Not only does she ride effortlessly above the orchestra switching when required to a most dramatic effective mezze voce with incredible ease, but she sings each note with due diligence with intense care given to phrasing and the overall arc of the vocal line with masterfully dynamic shading.

And as ever while it’s impossible in excerpts to generate real dramatic tension, Chailly leads the orchestra with due attention to detail, driving the music forward while sympathetically supporting Ms Dunn throughout.

Time to dig out more Dunn.

Late Night Splendour

In Baroque, Review on November 23, 2012 at 10:15 am

Review – The Nightshift. The Orchestra & Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment. John Butt.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s latest Nightshift concert had it all – birthday honours, heads rolling and a body count “higher than Taggart”.

The OAE is at the forefront of bringing classical music to a wider audience and Nightshift is – judging from the raising of hands in the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night – not doing too bad a job as a ”sample” session allowing people to try out classical music.

And the evening is presented by Alistair Appleton, who is just the right side of geeky and excited.

And this particular Nightshift continued to prove not only that the OAE is committed to bringing in new audiences – young and old – but that they are one of the leading ensembles around.

For this Nightshift the players were joined by members of the chorus for selections from the evening’s earlier concert – Zadok the Priest and excerpts from Dixit Dominus as well as the opening movement of Handel’s Eternal Source of Light Divine.

But over and above the superlative performances that the Nightshift presents, it’s the simple joy and enthusiasm of the players that comes across and no more so than that of director John Butt. Not only was it evident that his knowledge is immense but his natural ability to communicate what was behind the music and what it all meant was infectious. It was Butt who made the Taggart reference when bringing to life the chorus Judicabit in Nationibus, and his diary column asides were brilliant. I don’t think I have ever heard the chronology of the Hanoverian Succession dealt with so succinctly and with such humour.

More John Butt I say.

And so to the music. Judging from the reaction of the friends I brought along, each and everyone a non-classical music fan, it was a great success. As ever the OAE played with gusto and precision from the very beginning.

Tim Travers Brown’s performance of Eternal Source of Light Divine was of a simple, hushed beauty heightened by the beautifully tailored interplay with the trumpet soloist. But one plea – please credit all the soloists!

With Zadok The Priest, Butt took no prisoners in terms of tempo but he kept the singing light and real attention to both rhythm and the separate vocal lines.

However the great moments were in Dixit Dominus. Again the opening movement was taken at an exhilarating pace. However the chorus were spot on, with vigorous articulation and perfect diction. And in all the choral movements, Butt ensured that the counterpoint in Handel’s music shone through.

But it was the two solo movements that stood out. The two soprano soloists drawn from the chorus had clean, almost boyish voices. The gentle triplet flow melismas in Tecum Principium held no fears for Natalie Clifton-Griffith. She sailed through them with agility and ease with a purity of voice so suited to this music. She was then joined by her colleague, Grace Davidson, for an achingly beautiful performance of De Torrente in via bibet, possibly Handel’s greatest example of devotional music before Butt unleashed the choral fury of the closing Gloria.

Sixty minutes raced by and suddenly The Nightshift as over. Sadly my one small criticism of the evening was leaving the Queen Elizabeth Hall and being overwhelmed by the dance beats of The Boy Dan Good. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ‘toon’ but even my friends admitted that after the wonderful performances they had heard in the concert hall, grabbing a glass of wine to a background of 120bpm was a but much.

I am looking forward to the next Nightshift in February. But while Alistair has promised us dancers, perhaps we can have a little less disco?

Aria For … Tuesday – Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cité (Les Troyens)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera on November 20, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Régine Crespin. A great. And as Didon she has no rival. Only a few weeks ago I saw Anna Caterina Antonacci sing this very aria and while it was a mesmerising and musically intelligent performance, Ms Crespin’s performance is in a league of it’s own.

Again I wouldn’t say that Ms Crespin has a “beautiful” voice but it has character and presence and is coupled with incredible technique. From the opening bars she projects Didon’s frustration and sadness. Have the words “mourir” and “immense” ever been said with such conviction and with such weight and clarity for example? And throughout her single-minded focus on the words is vital and alive with dramatic intensity, moving Berlioz’ recitative forward inextricably forward.

The subsequent aria, Adieu, fière cite opens with a wistful, almost nostalgic lilt as I have never heard since. Each and every “adieu” is invested with real emotional weight. Each and every phrase is beautifully moulded and rendered as if by a skilled craftsman culminating in the closing section, again the lilt as Aux nuits d’ivresse and the final floating “finie”.

This isn’t just a memorable and immensely enjoyable moment of the highest standard of music making. It’s a masterclass in great performance.

Aria For … Monday – Träume (Wesendonck Lieder)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Review on November 19, 2012 at 10:09 am

I have many recordings of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder on my iPod so it’s always a surprise when shuffle churns up a version I do not often listen to and then wonder why ever not.

And this is a case in point, Danish soprano Elisabeth Meyer-Topsøe who performs the lieder alongside excerpts from Wagner and Strauss’s Vier Letzte lieder.

There is clearly something in the water in Scandinavia that produces such a high standard of singing. Ms Meyer-Topsøe has a rich and warm voice with a beautiful bloom at the top of her range. And this is coupled with a very sure and confident technique and excellent diction.

What is refreshing about this recital is the old-fashioned manner of the performance and I mean that in a very good way. Sometimes new performers try to hard and labour against the music itself it seems. Here, Ms Meyer-Topsøe delivers a solid yet nuanced performance. The drama of the words not overdone but every word carefully placed.

Just listen, for example to the closing lines. They are beautifully floated with just the right touch of emphasis on the words themselves – Und dann sinken in die Gruft leading us back to the world of Tristan und Isolde.

And in this song, as well as throughout the recital, she is sensitively accompanied by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Norbert Bihlmaier.

Now excuse me while I return and listen to the Ms Meyer-Topsøe’s entire recital from the top.

“Remember Me”

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on November 17, 2012 at 10:21 am

Review – Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers – French Exchange (Sarah Connolly, Fernando Guimarães, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Jonathan Cohen).

The second instalment in the OAE’s QH&L’s series did not completely match the white hot intensity of the inaugural concert of the series. Personally, I think that this had more to do with the programming than the performers and performances themselves.

While I can understand the connection between the baroque French musical style and that of Henry Purcell, it seemed like a strange leap of artistic faith to conjoined him with Rameau who wrote his first opera almost forty years after Purcell’s death even if the programming included detours via Charpentier and Lalande.

Needless to say Sarah Connolly didn’t so much steal as command the evening. She is – in my mind – one of the greatest mezzos on the stage and concert hall today. I remember her more than notable performance in an otherwise disappointing Mahler Symphony No. 8 and have seen her on stage a number of times as well as having all her excellent recordings. And on the evening she not only bathed the audience with her wonderfully warm, resonant and luxurious voice but also demonstrated a keen and intelligent musicianship.

But it wasn’t in the set pieces taken from either Medée Hippolyte et Aricie but in the single and exquisitely performed aria from Dido and Aeneas, Thy Hand Belinda – When I Am Laid In Earth. A collective stillness settled on the audience during this most eloquent and beautiful rendition where Ms Connolly coloured each phrase and spun out gentle ornamentation. ‘Remember me’ has rarely – if ever – sounded so heartbreaking. I only wish the OAE had gone to the expense of closing with a real chorus – even just single voices.

Last minute changes to the programme led to some confusion as to who was singing what, when but even in the chunks of Charpentier and Rameau it was Ms Connolly who dominated. Her dignified yet impassioned delivery of the two scenes from Medée were a timely reminder that she will be performing the title role next year at the London Coliseum. Its a shame that her clear and fluent French diction won’t be heard in stage and you don’t have a ticket for ENO’s forthcoming production in 2013 now is the time to get one.

Cruelle mère des amour from Hippolyte et Aricie was another tour de force with Ms Connolly demonstrating that even within the confines of more-than-mannered French baroque opera there is plenty of scope for Phèdre’s emotional turmoil. And in the subsequent scene with her son, she more than compensated for the lukewarm Hippolyte of Guimarães.

Indeed and sadly Guimarães never really moved beyond lukewarm. While his voice has both a pleasing if one dimensional timbre and is both flexible and fluid, there was – for me – something of the bland about it. Perhaps it was the choice of repertoire on the evening but I didn’t think his voice particularly suited either the Purcell or the Rameau.

As before, the orchestra directed by Jonathan Cohen were superlative, digging with gusto into the orchestral excerpts from Charpentier, Rameau and Purcell and making the most of the rather non-descript Lalande. Indeed their clear enjoyment and passion for the music was demonstrated after the concert by two of the players extolling the joys and challenges of playing at a pitch of A392.

Ultimately however, Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers Parte Deux – bar inspired and assured performances by Ms Connolly – failed to reach the emotional intensity of the first concert.

Aria for … Friday – Tace la notte! (Il Trovatore)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on November 16, 2012 at 8:56 am

Ah! if only Ms Sondra Rodvanovsky (here with the Philharmonic of Russia conducted by Constantine Orbelian) had sung this wonderful aria from Il Trovatore like this when I saw McVicar’s production at the Met. Sadly neither she nor the rest of the cast were on anything close to good form on that night but here she knocks it out of the ball park.

If nothing else this single aria on a rather remarkable recital disc reminds me that this soprano is a formidable soprano. She soars with a richness and beauty of tone through the opening section even if her sense of vocal and dynamics is more starkly black and white that shades of any particular colour. And although perhaps I would prefer a little more finesse in the cadenza before the allegro, her pinpoint accuracy and vocal swagger in the second section makes up for it.

Not a bad start for a Friday …

Aria For … Wednesday – Lascia ch’io pianga (Rinaldo)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on November 14, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Every morning I hit random on my iPod and listen to the first aria that it delivers. It not only sets me up for the day but also more often than not reveals a piece that I have not heard or self-selected for a while.

So my first Aria … For Wednesday this morning was Lascia ch’io pianga.

It might be the most ‘common hackney’d’,, but it remains – for me – one of the most beautiful arias Handel ever wrote. And this particular performance by Yvonne Kenny is beautifully poignant.

Sensitively accompanied by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra conducted by Paul Dyer, this is a performance of the utmost simplicity that finds Ms Kenny in superb voice. But what makes it all the more beautiful is the elegant and tasteful ornamention of the returning da capo. Some might argue that this aria – of all Handel’s arias – doesn’t require ornamentation in the da capo (For example Ms Kermes’ recent performance) but here Ms Kenny’s vocal flourishes are not only intelligent but underline the pathos of the aria.

Simply stunning.

What’s yours?

NSA Don With Strings Attached

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on November 9, 2012 at 8:30 am

Review – Don Giovanni (The Lowry Theatre, Wednesday 7 November 2012)

Don Giovanni – William Dazeley
Leporello – Alastair Miles
Donna Anna – Meeta Raval
Don Ottavio – Christopher Turner
Donna Anna – Elizabeth Atherton
Zerlina – Claire Wild
Masetto – Oliver Dunn

Director – Alessandro Talevi
Set & Costume Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Choreographer – Victoria Newlyn

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Anthony Kraus

It’s a hit and miss affair with Opera North it seems. A magnificent Das Rheingold but a disappointing Die Walküre. And productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare that were lacklustre and in the case of the Bellini, miscast.

So it was with some trepidation that I returned to The Lowry for their new production of Don Giovanni.

However, bar a few misgivings this new production was smart and occasionally sassy. Some future fine tuning is needed and perhaps a new look at some of the casting will also strengthen what is, overall, an intelligent take on an oft-performed opera.

And personally, it’s originality is miles ahead of the schlock currently on stage at ENO and stringer than Covent Garden recent attempt.

Therefore it’s a shame that there was inconsistency in the quality of the singing. To start at the top, Dazeley’s Don was vocally and for most of the time dramatically one dimensional. It’s not that he isn’t a fine singer, he was just the wrong singer for the role. His light-weight voice didn’t only fail to always carry above the orchestra – not helped at the end by swinging him wildly around the stage ahead of his denouement – but didn’t possess the light and shade to reflect both the amorous and more threatening aspects of his character that needs clear portrayal in the music. For example, the dual vocal personality required in the quartet Non ti fidar, o misera. And there was little sense of the dual personality of a man who one moment is a charmer and seducer and the next a potentially brutal thug.

But where Dazeley did shine was as a foil to Leporello. Garbed – so it seemed – as a Victorian freakshow manager, Alastair Miles was both one of the more vocally accomplished characters as well as an intelligent actor. The only place where he didn’t seem to take advantage of the inherent humour of the narrative was at the opening of the Second act and his initial interaction with Donna Elvira. But side by side, their master/servant act was both humorous and Miles’ assured vocal delivery seemed to transfer to Dazeley.

Both Meeta Raval and Elizabeth Atherton as Donne Anna and Elvira respectively were vocally brittle. Ms Raval’s harshly metallic voice unpleasantly cut through her fellow Valkyries earlier this year and within the confines of this production it sat uncomfortable across Mozart’s music. Technically she is an accomplished singer but her voice simply has a brittle, harsh tone not suited to Donna Anna. Similarly Ms Atherton’s voice was on the hard side and struggled in places to get through entire phrases, leading to distracting pauses in her music. Also there were serious intonation problems throughout and most alarmingly in Mi tradi. However it has to be said that in ensemble the two ladies seemed re suited for example in Non ti fidar and Protegga il giusto cielo.

Don Ottavio is a difficult role to cast. It is not Christopher Turner’s natural ken but he made a valiant attempt at the role. A ‘stand-and-deliver’ tenor he was – again – marginally stronger in ensemble. Dalla sua pace – an often under-rated Mozartian gem – is beguilingly difficult to carry off and Turner struggled, relying at critical moments, such as the closing bars on a technique more suited to the verismo and bel canto roles that seem to make up the mainstay of his repertoire.

But by far the two stand-out performances came from the Zerlina and Masetto of Claire Wild and Oliver Dunn. While Dunn may not always have carried across the orchestra he sang and acted with conviction and possesses a warm, round baritone. And Ms Wild’s Zerlina was strongly characterised and her singing was bold, confident and burnished. Her Batti, batti quite rightly brought cheers not only for her acting ability but the musicianship she displayed.

Following the below par playing of Die Walküre the Orchestra of Opera North under Anthony Kraus delivered some clean, light almost chamber-like playing. It’s always interesting in the opening bars of the overture to see if the conductor observes the correct length of the double bass notes as pointed out by William Mann. Kraus did not and neither did he create enough of a contrast or tension between the adagio opening section and the ensuing allegro. Indeed on the whole, Kraus’ tempi was on the fast side, sometimes so fast that the singers struggled to keep up or get the words out. But the orchestra skittered though the music with aplomb if not much character.

So to the production.

Talevi’s take – with his colleagues – had some clever ideas hidden within it built around themes of control and time.

First of all the very obvious reference to Punch & Judy and puppetry. Talevi smartly and with charm incorporated this into the narrative. For example in the Catalogue aria as well as in the scenes with Don Giovanni and Massetto as well as Leporello and Donna Elvira. Framing Donna Anna and Don Ottavio as if in a painting, perhaps alluding to their more suppressed lives, was also intriguing. Where the puppetry seemed to come undone for me was with Don Giovanni himself. All well and good having him play puppet master as Massetto tries to escape in the second act but having him hoisted into the flies at the end as a puppet himself was more of a stretch, despite the nice touch of his demise at the hand of jilted brides. Similarly an inference at the end to the other characters merely as puppets of a Deus ex machina was confusing as relying on the connection with either the Punch & Judy element or the Commendatore’s return wasn’t enough.

There was also a sense of Victorian drama-cum-farce running through the production. As I’ve noted Leporello was a freak show circus master with Don Giovanni a booted and suited Dorian Gray-like character and Donna Anna and Don Ottavio extras from a Wharton novel. Don Ottavio as kleptomaniac slash grave robber got a laugh but was wasted or pointless – depending in your view – as it wasn’t developed.

And Donna Anna’s costume evolution from Like-A-Virgin Madonna to an Oscar Wilde female lead to Sharon Stone from Fatal Instinct hinted at a temporal theory to the story that didn’t really gel even with the inclusion of Masetto and Zerlina as teddy boys and girls.

Clearly the juxtaposition of different eras hinted that Don Giovanni himself was timeless – perhaps immortal to chime with the immortality of themes of Makropulos and Faust in the rest of Opera North’s season – but it didn’t really gain momentum even with the brides in the final scene.

Yet an unexpectedly poignant moment was Don Giovanni’s serenade, sung not to an individual but rather to the female characters daubed on the walls of the set. Was it a whorehouse? His house? Hard to tell. But it seemed as if at that precise moment it wasn’t so much Don Giovanni as seducer as Don Giovanni as dispossessed and tragic.

So in a sense Talevi had too much going on. A plethora of ideas – most of them good – that need thinning out and finessing.

If that can be done, and the casting can be sorted then Opera North has a production that will be not only bankable and enjoyable for the audience, but thought-provoking as well.

Semi-Detached Strauss

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on November 8, 2012 at 11:51 am

Richard Strauss – Three Hymns & Opera Arias (Soile Isokoski, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra & Okko Kamu)

Soile Isokoski is among today’s cohort of Strauss sopranos. I have seen her as both Strauss’ Marschallin and Countess, as well as in concert recital. She is also a fine Mozartian and is a singer I will continue to keep an eye out in terms of seeing her live.

And now, following an excellent recording of Strauss lieder including the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as a disc of opera arias, Ms Isokoski returns with a second Strauss recital of his Drei Hymnen as well as selected cuts from Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio.

Undeniably, Ms Isokoski has the bright and clear soprano suited to Strauss (and Mozart) in terms of its flexibility and range. Underscoring the beauty of her voice is a firm technique which allows her to spin the oft-required long-breathed phrases with relative ease.

But while all the notes are there and the sound Ms Isokoski produces is beautiful and sometimes verging on the stunning, with this recording – and on those occasions when I have seen her on stage – there is something lacking.

It’s characterisation.

Occasionally there’s a hint of it. Often not more than a fleeting hint as she glides over the music. And it is over the music she glides rather than immersing herself in it. As a result, her Ariadne sounds no different to her Marschallin or to her Capriccio Countess.

There’s a sense of detachment from both the music and the words for the greater part of the recital. Clearly it’s always a challenge to perform excerpts ‘cold’, but even then there can – and should – always be a greater investment in the words. And particularly in the case of Strauss where words were as important as the music he writes for them and around them.

Yet it is clear that the problem doesn’t lie exclusively with Ms Isokoski. Okko Kamu and the players of the of the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra provide some of the most lacklustre and bland playing I’ve heard for a long time. Kamu leads the orchestra, but there’s no sense of direction or dramatic focus.

For example, Es gibt Ein Reich is taken at a brisker pace than expected. Nothing wrong with that except that there is very little, if any, ebb and flow in the music. More disappointingly, there is little dynamic shading, rhythmic snap or colouring in the wonderful orchestral textures that Strauss wrapped around the vocal line. The result is that the wonderful climax, the sense of excitement – rapture almost – as the scene draws to a close isn’t there.

Similarly in the two selections from Der Rosenkavalier. The first excerpt, Die zeitgeist, die ist Ein sonderbar is an unusual choice coming as it does within the larger set piece dialogue with Octavian. Perhaps it would have been better to dispense with this and extend the more famous monologue Das geht er hin and get a real Octavian in and run through to the end if the act? Sadly Ms Isokoski is one dimensional in this monologue from the start even failing to relish “der aufgeblasene schlechte Kerl” and while there are hints of an attempt at deeper characterisation it doesn’t really go anywhere. And again Kamu trips the orchestra along at a pace with just a little more flexibility that previously.

The orchestral introduction preceding the Countess’ monologue from Capriccio is, I’m afraid to say, not so much bland as lazy. There is no sense that Kamu is marshalling his orchestral forces sufficiently or with any sense of the overall architecture. The horn player hits all the notes admittedly, but under Kamu there is no sense of momentum towards the wonderful orchestral surge that takes up the theme. And the final and what should be magnificent orchestral climax is marred by over played brass.

The monologue gets off to a noisy start and Ms Isokoski shows more promise initially than in the preceding scenes. In fact in terms of balance it is almost as if she has moved slightly forward of the orchestra. Sadly when she get to Kein andres she falls back into singing the notes. And simply singing the notes. There is no mystery in this scene.

Not surprisingly Ms Isokoski and the orchestra come off slightly better in the Drei Hymen on poems by Hölderlin. There’s a more distinct – almost luscious – bloom in the orchestral music – particularly in Hymne an die Liebe – and she is definitely more engaged in the music. But again what is lacking is an overall sense of direction. These are not short songs. The opening song is just shy of nine minutes but loses momentum at the midpoint from which it never really recovers. And while Kamu and the orchestra start well with the filigree scoring of Ruckkehr in die Heimat and there is some robust rhythmic interplay which spurs on Ms Isokoski, once again it seems to fizzle out. The same of the final song, Die Liebe which is possibly the most successful of the three and the most convincing track on the disc. Punchy brass at the beginning bode well and there’s some jaunty wind playing in the central section. But the conductor doesn’t really weave it all together so that the impact of the closing section, at which point Strauss pens one of his expansive and beautiful vocal lines and nostalgically winds the music down, is lost.

So in many ways this is a frustrating album. Ms Isokoski sounds beautiful. Admittedly there is the smallest hint of strain at the top of her range – which I think has more to do with the vocal athleticism that Strauss requires of any soprano – and some creeping vibrato but the sound she produces is beautiful.

But there is a lack of substance and depth. Of interpretation. Of wonder.

So is it a case of unsympathetic support from Kamu and his players? There’s no denying that the orchestra can play the music but there’s a nagging doubt in my mind that they go from the first bar to the last just paying the notes on the stave, led but not directed by Kamu.

I just have to wonder if, under a different baton but not necessarily a different orchestra, Ms Isokoski would have fared better and the result might have been a more accomplished, heartfelt and convincing set of performances?


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera