An Chloe, K524; Abendempfindung, K523
Le nozze di Figaro Un moto di gioia
Im Frühling, D882; Heiss mich nicht reden, D887/2; Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, D887/1; Ellens Gesang III, D839
On this island
Soile Isokoski (soprano) & Marita Viitasalo (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 11 April, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Soile Isokoski is one of a number of contestants in the “BBC Cardiff Singer of the World” competition who, while failing to win the main prize in their year, have gone on to develop impressive international careers. She was a finalist in 1987. 1989 is best remembered for the two formidable baritones Terfel and Hvorostovsky, but the finalists also included Hillevi Martinpelto and Monica Groop. Among the also-rans that year was Alexandrina Pendachanska. The phenomenon has been repeated in the years since then and will doubtless continue to do so.
In recent years, as she has approached 50, Isokoski has become established as an operatic star in the repertoire of Mozart and Richard Strauss once owned by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. This recital showed her to be equally at home on the concert platform. Mastery of both realms is no mean feat, something that was brought home by the personal context of this recital. I have recently reviewed a number of concerts which included operatic music and in which the soloists were as extrovert as if they were enacting roles on a stage and in costume; it was quite a shock to return to the rarefied world of art song, with its conventions of austerity and restraint being as rigorously observed as they were in this recital. There were no flamboyant high notes and no drawing attention to vocal effects; instead there was minimal use of physical gesture, letting the voice do the work and sharing the limelight modestly with another musician on equal terms.
This was an imaginatively varied programme. Mozart and Schubert favourites shared the evening with a rarely-heard cycle by Britten and songs by two of Isokoski’s compatriots. This diversity co-existed, however, with a somewhat melancholy monotony and severe tone. Most of the songs spoke of loss, sacrifice, hardship or unhappiness; humour was at a premium.
Isokoski warmed up with a Mozart group. “An Chloe” and “Abendempfindung” stem from a single day, the one rejoicing in union with the beloved, the other reflecting on ultimate death. While the singer revealed substantial weight in her chest register, she took care to cover her top notes and soft upward intervals were negotiated with beautiful poise. No artificial interpretation was applied to these restrained pieces, just a personality which reminded me of Irmgard Seefried in the eloquence of utterance and charm of sound at opposite ends of the voice. The contrast with ‘Un moto di gioia’ was considerable, this substitute aria for Susanna from Act Two of ‘Figaro’ displaying those theatrical gestures, dramatic swings of tempo and dynamics and emphasis on cadences that were renounced elsewhere.
Few songs in Schubert’s oeuvre are as downbeat as “Im Frühling”. Here, singer and pianist faithfully observed its leisurely pace and rococo simplicity. Two Mignon songs introduced a contrast: the emotionally loaded “Heiss mich nicht reden” was brought to an under-stated but heart-breaking conclusion; in “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” the most notable feature was the absolute unity of conception and execution between singer and pianist, from the desolate preface of octaves in the instrumental introduction, through the subdued realisation of the beloved’s absence and the resultant agitation to the return to the starting-point. A feeling of admiration had been growing since the start of the evening for Marita Viitasalo, a positive, forthright accompanist, which received triumphant confirmation in the twentieth-century pieces to come. Neither partner could, however, do anything to raise the uninspired and repetitive “Ave Maria” out of its stagnation, though they each did their duty by a song admired, it seems, by all except the present writer!
Gerald Larner’s admirable programme notes raised the enigma of the lapse into disuse of the songs of the once-feted Finnish composer Yrjö Kilpinen. I would be inclined to add derivativeness to the explanations which he ventures. The range of models which he followed was reflected in the choice of four songs here performed. “Illalla”, a setting of a conventional poem in which a lover returns to a place of past happiness, offers plush hints of late romanticism, while “Rannalta”, in which similar feelings of nostalgia are evoked by the song of a wild duck, relies upon the chill of bare chords. “Maassa marjani makaav’i” has opportunities for pianistic display in different registers of the instrument, almost over-shadowing the voice.
A similar observation could be made about Britten’s early song-cycle “On this island”. I find the texts by W.H. Auden, with their mixture of conventional poetic diction and jarring modernisms, obscure, but the young Britten showed his affinity for the poet’s work by selecting a musical style to reflect the mood of each: the piano arpeggios and vocal flourishes of ‘Let the florid music praise’, for example, succeed by the piano enactment of falling leaves in the next song. ‘Nocturne’ is filled with slow, solemn piano chords, with an eventual unexpected release to tease us, while ‘As it is, plenty’ provided the only element of humour in what was a distinctly straight-laced recital. The singer coped admirably with the gruelling vocal line and both artists displayed the highest level of musicianship.
And so, back to home, as it were, with Sibelius. The folksong simplicity of “Langtan heter min arvedel” was well caught by both artists but I have to confess a preference for the orchestral version of the macabre “Under strandens granar”, recently recorded for Ondine by Isokoski under Leif Segerstram. Colours are inevitably more vivid and instrumental sounds seem to intensify the singer’s story-telling. The inevitable climax was “Var det en dröm”, to which Isokoski brought her characteristically glowing tone, untarnished by the demands of a long and concentrated evening.