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Posts Tagged ‘Soile Isokoski’

Review – What An Ochs

In Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Saturday 24 May, 2014)

Marschallin – Soile Isokoski
Octavian – Alice Coote
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Herr Faninal – Mark Stone
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Valzacchi – Bonaventura Bottone
Annina – Pamela Helen Stephen
Major Domo/Landlord – Ted Schmidt
Marchande de Modes/Marianne Leitmetzerin – Elaine McKrill
Italian Tenor – Ji-Min Park
A Notary/Commissar – Eddie Wade
Vendor of Animals – Paul Curievici
Footmen/Servants – Nicholas Ashby, Paul Curievici, Edward Harrison, Joseph Kennedy

CBSO Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s been a Rosenkavalier-Fest for many reasons recently. First the magnificently refined performances under Sir Mark Elder in London featuring Anne Schwanewilms, Sarah Connolly and Lucy Crowe.

Then the opening night review of Glyndebourne’s new production overshadowed by the gratuitously vicious and uncalled for criticism of Tara Erraught.

And last night a complete concert performance at Symphony Hall. If I read the programme correctly, it’s somewhat surprising that this was the first complete performance of Der Rosenkavalier in Birmingham.

Even if it wasn’t, it was a performance of incredible musicianship, virtuosity, passion and sheer verve.

And as in London a few weeks ago, the casting of the three principles – or in this case four – was luxurious.

While it might be normal to start with the three leading ladies – and they were truly magnificent – the night ultimately belonged to Franz Hawlata’s Baron Ochs von Lerchanau.

His performance was a tour de force both musically and dramatically. Often in concert productions the directing is either intrusive or limp. On the stage of Symphony Hall it was well executed and meaningful. His Ochs was a blend of misinformed droit du seigneur and comedic timing that – for some reason – reminded me of Eric Morecombe. And securely riding above his stage presence was a vocal ability that was second to none. His voice was resonant and beautifully rounded and showed no signs of strain at either end of his range. His raison d’être in the First Act went beyond bluster to a meaningful – if misguided – Credo, and his singing at the close of the Second Act was a lesson in fine singing.

The three women were similarly impressive. Soile 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 that whatever ‘mojo’ she had temporarily misplaced was back. And in full force. From her first entry to her final ‘Ja, Ja’ she was a Marschallin in full control. There was a luminosity – a golden sheen – to her voice that fitted Strauss’ soaring music perfectly. From top to bottom there was a rich lustre to each and every note.

Her performance of Da geht er hin was markedly different to that of Ms Schwanewilms. As opposed to the philosophic, almost intellectual resignation of the latter, Ms Isokoski’s was firmly based in a more emotional spectrum and therefore the impact was incredibly forceful. While maintaining that aristocratic distance you really felt that at the heart if it this was a Marschallin who was very much a woman. And a woman not so much afraid of age, but of being left alone. It left a lump in my throat.

As her Octavian, Alice Coote married a beautifully bronzed and shining tone with incredible acting skill. Her comic turn and sense of timing with Ochs was brilliant and combined with the vocal splendour of her singing. There was a warmth and brilliance to her tone that didn’t bleach in the upper ranges and her technique – demonstrated in her ability to scale down her voice when appropriate – demonstrates what a unique and special talent she has.

And Sophie Bevan provided a steely Sophie. In character that is. Vocally she was equally splendid. Her lower and middle range has a beautiful smokiness to it and when she effortlessly rose to stratospheric heights in the Second Act it was breathtaking.

The remaining cast members all performed their roles with great vocal and acting aplomb. Special mention must go to Ji-Min Park’s Italian Tenor (and for his two handed farewell at the end of the evening); to Pamela Helen Stephen’s Annina and to Elaine McKrill’s Marianne Leitmetzerin. And also to Paul Curivici – his bright tenor promises a bright future.

And the final trio – let’s admit it – is often the ultimate reason for attending Der Rosenkavalier. Not only because it is the emotional pay-off we have known was going to happen from the Marschallin’s monologue in Act One, but also because it is the most sublime piece of music Strauss ever wrote.

And in Symphony Hall it was perfection.

Andris Nelsons daringly took the trio at a slower tempo than I’ve heard in a while. But he never lost control of its various strands, unfolding the glorious music with an authority that demonstrated he clearly knew the overall architecture of this opera. And not once did he allow the singers – as is often the case – to drown one another out. Each of the three vocal lines was clear and distinct as he drew them to that crushing climax at the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen at which point the singers – and the audience – were overwhelmed by the orchestra. As Strauss wanted.

How anything could follow that was impossible to consider but Mesdames Coote and Bevan then performed the most sublime Ist ein Traum, scaling their voices back to the finest pianissimi I’ve ever heard.

Supporting the singers was the CBSO – players and singers adult and junior. The Chorus was suitably full-throated and the Youth Chorus revelled in their role – especially manhandling Hawlata off stage. I hope the girl who fell over in the excited exit was okay.

And the orchestra – after a somewhat hesitant start – demonstrated that they actually have this music music not only in their bones but in their hearts. Under Nelsons’ superlative direction they had that European depth of tone – not only in the strings but also that elusive timbre in the woodwind and brass – that is vital in Strauss. Even more than usual, Nelsons and his players found that often-missed vulgarity in the Second and Third Acts and that necessary lilt in the waltzes that permeate this opera.

As the final notes died away, the audience could barely wait for the final notes to die before showing their appreciation for an incredible evening of music making and drama.

The ovation was a fitting tribute.

In Gottes Namen please record this.

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?

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