Seen and Heard Concert
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
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.
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.