London Philharmonic/Elder – 4 December

Don Juan, Op.20
Brentano Lieder (from Op.68):
Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden
Säusle, liebe Myrthe
Als mir dein Lied erklang
Symphony No.4

Soile Isokoski (soprano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 December, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This skilfully constructed Strauss and Mahler programme was linked by the poetry of Clemens Brentano who wrote the words not only of the three Strauss songs featured but also (with Achim von Arnim) the Des Knaben Wunderhorn anthology from which “Das himmlische Leben”, the final movement of Mahler 4, is drawn. Brentano’s poems may be full of early-19th-century poetic clichés – almost kitsch before the word was invented – but the music they elicited from both composers is simply glorious, a description which could equally apply to Soile Isokoski.

The concert opened unpromisingly with a less than ideal performance of Don Juan. This particular Don was very much the English Gentleman, moderate in all things. In much of the slower music the tension sagged making the performance distinctly limp. Nor were pulses set racing by the orchestral playing. The London Philharmonic does not possess the most refulgent string section and was frequently overpowered by less than sensitive wind and brass playing.

In the first two songs of the Brentano Lieder, Isokoski’s beautiful singing was hampered by unsympathetic orchestral accompaniment. Hers is a radiantly beautiful voice with echoes of Lisa della Casa, It is not a big voice, however, and if it is to soar free and unfettered it needs a refined, restrained and fluid support. In the second song, the effect of the slowish tempo was compounded by curiously leaden orchestral textures that disrupted and obscured the vocal line. In the third, things improved considerably and, almost too late, we got a glimpse of Isokoski’s true Straussian magic.

By contrast, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony received a thoroughly understanding performance. In particular, Elder rightly heeded Mahler’s frequent ’nicht eilen’ (do not hurry) and ’gemächlich’ (leisurely) injunctions which pepper the score and are all too frequently ignored by more egocentric conductors. Elder also succeeded in establishing a sensibly relaxed base tempo in the first movement, important because the very detailed expression markings often lead conductors into unsettling tempo changes, from which they find it hard to find their way back to the movement’s natural, relaxed gait. The LPO now played far more receptively and with much better internal balance, although the first horn frequently over-played his hand.

There was an agreeably restrained, slightly understated feel to the whole performance that was entirely apt. The two middle movements were particularly successful, especially the folk-fiddling violin solo of the second. The flowing ’Ruhevoll’ (peaceful) third benefited from well-judged tempo relationships.

The ’Finale’ proved more problematic. Extreme tempo changes were avoided and effectively underlined the links with the symphony’s opening. Although Isokoski once more sang with great beauty, the magic of the “Child’s Vision of Heaven” emerged fitfully. What was lacking? Perhaps part of the answer came as we reached the final heart-stopping stanza “Kein Musik is ja…” when the voice simply floats, time is finally suspended, bar lines seems to dissolve and the music sinks into heavenly slumber. At this point the accompaniment remained slightly earthbound, trapped within the beat – this is one of those moments when anything less than heavenly is not an option. Nonetheless, overall, this was a performance of many virtues and very few real faults.

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