The Oceanides, Op.73
Four Last Songs
Concerto for Orchestra
Soile Isokoski (soprano)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 14 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The concert augured well. This was a Finnish occasion – a Finnish orchestra of some 75 years’ standing, a much sought-after Finnish conductor, a distinguished Finnish soprano and a rarely heard masterpiece from Finland’s greatest composer. Moreover, the concert was dedicated to the memory of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, in view of her association with Strauss’s Four Last Songs.
Despite this august pedigree, the concert itself was undistinguished.
The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra has plenty of energy and occasionally some swagger. Its performance, however, was erratic. Some entries were muffed and the players did not always keep together. When on form, the brass was confidently raucous. The woodwind – flutes especially – were often clear but rather metallic. The bassoons made a good, earthy sound, and timpani was vigorous and effective. The strings sounded no more than satisfactory – possibly all that the Royal Albert Hall acoustic allowed.
The manner in which Sakari Oramo conducts suggests a disciplinarian in the contemporary style. Gobbets of sound turn the music into a succession of sound-bites. This, one might say, is an ‘objective’ pursuit of the notes present in the score. Arid neutrality offered us ‘globalisation’ of music and uniformity of style [resembling a collection of Hilton hotels]. Oramo eschews anything as ‘subjective’ as trying to convey a flowing dialectic or attempting to delineate a composer’s individual voice.
Sibelius’s orchestration of The Oceanides is limpid and demanding. While journeying in 1914 to his American sponsors in Connecticut, Sibelius condensed three movements into one, creating something close to an 8-minute symphony. The Finnish Radio Symphony, however, gave no sense of structure, nor of transition – two of Sibelius’s strongest features. The work was played limply. This unfocussed, lacklustre affair was – in the wrong, misunderstood sense – ‘impressionistic’.
Strauss’s delicate, precise, often long-phrased, evocative orchestral writing in “Four Last Songs” seems to have bewildered Oramo, He ‘solved’ his ‘problem’ by treating the accompaniment as essentially fragmentary and the antithesis of luscious. Unfortunately, Soile Isokoski was not in good voice either, nor at home in the Royal Albert Hall. She sounded especially nervous in the opening ‘Frühling’. ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ and ‘Im Abendrot’ came off better – Isokoski’s voice now sounding more settled and autumnal. Other problems remained – primarily the difficulty of subduing the orchestra, so that the soloist may be heard. It appeared as though rehearsal had been minimal.
In Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra it frequently seemed as if the orchestra had been put on fast-forward – particularly in the last movement, which suggested that only if music is fast and furious can it be exciting and rousing. The ghostly moments of this finale sped past inconsequentially. The side drum opened the second movement effectively, though. Overall, the performance was anodyne. True, this is unbuttoned, popular Bartók, but I missed the work’s astringent quirkiness and any sense of this being a masterwork. It was, rather, a scrapbook with the occasional attention-gaining picture, the pages flipped through fairly rapidly, and turning hastily past those entries that might shock.
The final three of Bartók’s Romanian Dances also flew by as encores.