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?

  1. You write nonsense.

  2. […] Isokoski is a finely nuanced interpreter of Richard Strauss but previously I have felt that her performances have lacked a certain vocal lustre. So I was incredibly pleased that her performance demonstrated […]

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