Recordings > Editor's Choice

R. STRAUSS: Three Hymns; Opera Arias

spacer Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Kamu. Texts and translations. Ondine 1202-2

Fresh Attention

Soile Isokoski's program of music by Richard Strauss offers a radiant traversal of the composer's rarely-heard Three Hymns.

IsokoskiCD

Ten years ago, Ondine released Soile Isokoski's excellent Four Last Songs with other Richard Strauss orchestral lieder under Marek Janowski; the same Finnish label produced a 2011 CD with the Finnish soprano offering Strauss songs with piano. The current release finds her working with countryman Okko Kamu and a resilient, glistening Helsinki Philharmonic on the Bavarian composer's rarely-heard Three Hymns (Op. 71), plus more familiar excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio.

Isokoski's voice remains in pristine shape, its steadiness and accuracy of pitch a joy to hear. Ariadne's two monologues show exhilaratingly steady and controlled vocalism over a wide range. Ondine's program has the order of the two brief scenes from Der Rosenkavalier curiously reversed: first we hear a "bleeding chunk" (awkwardly cut off at Octavian's reply) centered around "Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding," and then the monologue "Da geht er hin," which precedes it in the opera. Restraint characterized Isokoski's San Francisco Opera Marschallin in 2007; since then the soprano has honed the role in several major European houses. Her work here indulges in neither interpretive heavy breathing nor swoopy mannerism, two of the modes most commonly heard from acclaimed recorded exponents of this repertory. Isokoski holds firmly to the notes, hit dead-on, and the words are intelligently and discerningly uttered (with a little imitative nod toward the "kleine Fürstin Resi"). For home listening, that comes as a considerable relief. What might complement her admirable musicality is the kind of sudden infusion of knowing warmth that interpreters such as Maria Reining and Régine Crespin — neither as even or precise a vocalist as Isokoski — can bring flooding into lines such as "Auch sie ist ein Geschöpf des Vaters, der uns alle erschaffen hat." The Capriccio final scene begins, as it really must to resonate fully, with the ravishing Mondschein music. The Helsinki ensemble may not be the Vienna Philharmonic, but here, as throughout, the admirably clean playing is persuasive. Isokoski sounds glowing and apt — and more emotionally transported than she does as Ariadne or the Marschallin. She's one of few recorded Madeleines actually to make clear via tone color that part of the text is diegetic music — her harp-accompanied sight-reading of Flamand's sonnet. No trio of ladies (Ariadne) or Major-Domo (Capriccio) takes part.

The Drei Hymnen, together lasting twenty-two and a half minutes here, don't get much exposure in concert or on recordings. Barbara Kemp sang them at their premiere in Berlin in November 1922; in several decades of concert-going I have encountered them just once, sung by Melanie Diener in 2005 in that key Strauss stronghold, Dresden. Setting texts by Friedrich Hölderlin that have a faintly uncomfortable aura of Herder-derived nationalism, they alternate bursts of orchestral power with more transparent textures and call upon a flexible soprano who can soarrather like the monologues from Daphne and the Four Last Songs in musical procedure for both orchestra and soloist, yet lacking those later pages' sublime melodic inspiration. This radiant traversal by Isokoski and Kamu may win fresh attention for these hymns to various aspects of love. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3