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Soile Isokoski: Songs by Chausson, Berlioz, Duparc

CD Button Helsinki Philharmonia Orchestra, Storgards. Texts and translations. Odine ODE 1361-2

Recordings Isokoski Cover 1215

THE FINE FINNISH SOPRANO Soile Isokoski (whose name aptly translates as “Northern light”) brings much radiant tone and emotional depth to her new disc of songs, which might be called a “Greatest Hits” of nineteenth-century French song: Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’ete, and three songs by Duparc.  Backed by the lush playing of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, under conductor John Storgards, Ms. Isokoski’s silvery soprano boasts remarkable diction, extraordinarily fine phrasing and a clear sensitivity to the poetic texts of these romantic pieces.

What ties these twelve songs together are familiar themes of the idealization of new love and the terrible pain of losing love to indifference or death. The natural world, particularly the sea (in several songs), is utterly indifferent to the fates of the lovers and simply goes on as living things die. Chausson’s Poeme, set to symbolist poems by Maurice Bouchor, is by far the most dramatic on the disc. Composed shortly after Chausson’s two trips to Bayreuth (one of which was to see the premiere of Parsifal), the cycle shows a Wagnerian influence, especially on the orchestration, that’s palpable, particularly in the instrumental passages. The first section, “La Fleur des eaux” (The flower of the waters) begins happily, with florid images of sea and perfumed flowers surrounding the beloved woman, but it abruptly turns dark when the lovers must part and the sea takes her away, ending with the despairing, “La mer chante, e le vent moqueur Raille l’angoisse de mon coeur” (“The sea sings and the mocking wind rails at the anguish of my heart”). The second section is instrumental, leading to the devastating final section, “La mort de l’amour” (The Death of Love). Isokoski never resorts to dramatic mannerism in the Chausson. She conveys the poet’s bitterness and loss with quiet nuance and a remarkable palate of vocal colors. In the two most dramatic phrases, her voice takes on a flat, almost white tone to convey the lover’s utter hopelessness, especially in “L’exprimable horreur des amours trespasses” (The inexpressible horror of love now dead) and “Ce mot fatal ecrit dans ses grands yeux: l’oubli…”(…I could read the fatal word in her large eyes: forgetfulness and oblivion). Isokoski’s interpretation of these phrases is quite moving, even devastating, but she achieves it through delicacy of line and subtlety of phrasing.

Berlioz’s cycle Les Nuits d’ete begins and ends with lighter songs, which surround the four sad songs in between. Isokoski lightens the voice and sings with liquid tone in the first, “Villanelle,” reflecting the pastoral scenes of lovers picking strawberries in a forest. This is followed by a ravishing “Le spectre de la rose” and a haunting “Sur le lagunes (Lamento),” a fisherman’s lament for his deceased love, which Berlioz orchestrates with undulating ostenati that suggests a boat on the sea, and Isokoski sings the swooning phrase “Ah! Sans amour, s’en aller sur la mer”(Ah! Without love to go to sea) with great beauty and anguish. After two more songs filled with bleak imagery, the cycle concludes with a fantasy voyage in “L’ile inconnue” (The unknown isle), which Isokoski sings with charm and delight.

The disc concludes with three songs by Henri Duparc, highlighted by “l’Invitation au voyage,” set to a poem by Baudelaire in which the singer seeks a time and place that Duparc was never able to find in his own life, repeating the phrase “La tout n’est qu’ordre et beaute, Luxe, calme et volupte” (“There all is order and beauty, luxury, calm, and pleasure!”). Isokoski sings this phrase with palpable longing.

Her rock solid technique and interpretive sensitivity are in evidence throughout the disc. She’s capable of ravishing pianos, but when the voice needs to soar above the orchestra, she has ample volume and power with no hint of strain. Her singing is unselfconsciously beautiful. The entire disc benefits from the delicacy, simplicity and lack of mannerism that Isokoski brings to these rich selections. —Henson Keys

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