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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Sibelius, Strauss, Beethoven:
Soile Isokoski (soprano); Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 5 May, 2005 (AR)

Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philahrmonia Orchestra opened their programme with an incandescent performance of Sibelius’ tone poem The Swan of Tuonela. Dohnányi conjured silky, lush and luminous string playing from the Philharmonia, accompanied by the haunting cor anglais playing of Rosie Staniforth and the heart throb timpani taps of Andrew Smith: this was a profoundly poignant performance casting a chilling spell over the audience.

Dohnányi is a leading exponent of the music of Richard Strauss and gave us a luscious and radiant interpretation of the composer’s Four Last Songs, again getting superlative playing from the Philharmonia. What let the proceedings down was the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski who seemed uncomfortable and out of place in Strauss’s evocative sound world.

In Frühling Isokoski’s voice came across as hard edged, her vocal line breaking between high and low registers, negating the natural flow of the music. In September things improved somewhat with Isokoski being more at ease, producing mellow and sombre sounds evoking the mood of the music even if her lower register was rather opaque and flat. Although in Beim Schlafengehen her voice was harsh and strident, she seemed to come alive in Im Abendrot singing with a melting lyricism, negotiating the closing tranquil phrases with ease, accompanied by some exquisitely sombre brass playing. Isokoski’s uninspired singing apart, what made this so worthwhile hearing was the sensitive and imaginative support from conductor and orchestra; certainly the best conducted and played Four Last Songs that I have heard in a long while.

Watching Christoph von Dohnányi’s conducting technique in Ludwig Van Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony forcibly reminded me of Herbert von Karajan’s digging downbeat gestures, and indeed his reading was very close to Karajan’s 1952 Philharmonia account in its direct urgency.


The two nailing opening chords in E flat were taut and solid and set the metre, mood and foundation for the entire performance. From beginning to end Dohnányi had masterly control over the titanic structure of this radical and revolutionary score, integrating all four movements as an organic explosive whole.

The divided violins, left and right, were wildly energetic, whilst the double basses, placed on the far left, played with an appropriate grainy toughness. If the woodwind were slightly recessed, what was incisive – as expected – was the assured and suave timpani playing of Andrew Smith – so important in this most militaristic of symphonies. The Marcia Funebre had a melting reserve and again was perfectly paced – never dragging, maintaining a sense of urgent forward momentum, and shifting in mood between light and tranquil to dark and brooding.


The strings in the Scherzo had a rumbling, shimmering quality, as if a distant army was on the road to an approaching victory, coming nearer and nearer. The three horns in the trio were played with an appropriately raucous attack, producing a vivacious, visceral sensation. Dohnányi conducted the Finale with great panache treating it like a wild frenzied dance, with the strings whipped into a frenzy. At last the woodwind shone through, producing exquisite sounds. The brass and timpani excelled themselves in the concluding passages, producing the sensation of an aural blaze of white-hot energy.


This was a performance of extraordinary contrasts in dynamic range between forte and fortissimo passages as well as shifts in light and dark moods which made it such an extraordinarily emotional and divergent reading: the closing bars possessed the same intensity as the opening chords, as if we had come full circle. I could have easily heard it all over again, so perfectly integrated was his highly memorable performance.

Alex Russell

Further listening

Jean Sibelius The Swan of Tuonela: Berliner Philharmoniker, Hans Rosbaud (conductor): DGG: The Originals: 447-453-2.

Richard Strauss Four Last Songs: Jessye Norman (soprano); Gewandhaus Orchester, Kurt Masur (conductor): Philips: 464 742-2.

Ludwig Van Beethoven Symphony No.3 ‘Eroica’: Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer (conductor); Wiener Festwochen 1960: Fonit Cetra CDE: 1007.

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)