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Here is a voice that acts as a pillar to the world

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
11/17/2007 -  11/18/2007
Richard Strauss: Vier Letzte Lieder
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.6 in A Minor, "Tragic"

Soile Isokoski (soprano)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (conductor)

Soile Isokoski, who just turned 50 this past Valentine's Day, first came to public attention some five years ago, when her radiant and sparkling interpretation of Strauss' Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) on the Ondine record label captured the hearts of music critics and opera aficionados far and abroad. Whether she sings Mozart or Richard Strauss, the heavenly voice of Soile Isokoski is a true presentiment of God¡¦s blessing on an illustrious gift, symbolized by a crystalline golden tone and a seemingly effortless unblemished legato that can soothe even the tempestuous soul. The hallmark that distinguishes her glamorous beautiful voice from other great Sopranos of past and present is found by her lustrous upper register and precision in pitch, and her ability to float the sumptuous phrases with an apparently limitless supply of breath. In the past two evenings, Hong Kong was one of the Asian host cities that featured Miss Isokoski in live performances of this magnus opus by Strauss, and not surprisingly, the reaction from the audience has proven to be yet another glorious testimony to her already impressive list of ravishing performances, including those with Staatskapelle Dresden (Bernard Haitink), Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Sakari Oramo), Philharmonia Orchestra (Christoph von Dohnanyi); just to name but a few from her growing list. Indeed, here is a voice that acts as a pillar to the world, where lyricism and ringing purity converged in perfect unison! In less than twenty-five minutes on the first half of the evening¡¦s programme, Miss Isokoski captivated and renewed the hearts and minds of both the young and the old in this tour de force of the vocal repertory. Four standing ovations were in fact only an under-statement to reflect how Miss Isokoski's voice and presence was loved amongst her audience in her debut with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO).

Whereas the writing of music reviews can sometimes be seen as a unilateral channel reflecting one critic¡¦s own inspirations and after-thought to a performance, I did try to be as scientifically objective as possible (forgive me, my profession calls), engaging conversations with the music eminences and musicians in town and visiting from abroad during the intermission to collect their thoughts, as well as in the post-concert reception for invited guests on Friday night with Maestro de Waart himself. Never had our viewpoints met in such remarkable unity, from the fine details of her lustrous tone colour to her effective mannerisms through subtle hand gestures; we cherished and refreshed our recollections of that quarter of an hour while Soile Isokoski was on stage.

To begin, Maestro de Waart savored the sensuality of Strauss' texture, allowing the music to flow in its natural course, specifically by eschewing the broad tempi and often exaggerated ritardandi that had become the fashion. The trend of instilling solemnity and pathos was traditionally envisioned to be the proper mannerism for interpretation of these songs. Interestingly, however, this was quite the contrary to the approach adopt by Miss Isokoski. Instead, she imbued these glorious songs with a freshness of youthful charm, devoid of all the unnecessary cloying sentimentality, and shying from any excessiveness and exaggerations. For instance, in the first song Fruhling (Spring), there was an ecstatic soaring to life, sensitive in lyricial tenderness, as her voice paved the way into an autumnal mood for the later songs. The sinuous lines of the second song September, with the voice floating angelically above still waters, were also contoured and shaded in such care and balance. The beautiful violin solo from concertmaster John Harding in the third song Beim Schlafengehen (Time to Sleep) which coincidently, sounded rich and sublime in the first evening's performance, but a bit thin in tone in the second evening's, despite my seating actually being improved to a left-center seat in the seventh row of Stall 1 - has rarely sounded so haunting. Those pianissimo horn calls that closed each movement were carefully articulated with such refinement creating what seemed distant echoes, perfect in bridging the mood of what Miss Isokoski had established as the lingering atmosphere on stage. In the final song Im Abendrot (At Sunset), the luminous vocal beauty and emotional transparency proclaimed the final presentiment to death, with a seal of beauty. Any listeners on these four vocal miniatures with a critical mind could then join the jigsaw, and behold, would be able to appreciate a consummation on the composer's ultimate feeling to his lifelong passion with the soprano voice that is analogous to his passionate love for his wife [Pauline] and profound valediction to life. Miss Isokoski embraced the cycle of life-death and oblivion serenely without any superfluous sentimentality. In this regard, she is blessed by a singing voice, where even darkness can convey into colors of beauty.

To be critically critical, the only "weakness" so-to-speak in both evenings' performances as a whole was in the arrangement and order of the four songs. An authentic reading of Vier Letzte Lieder would have been performed in the order that Strauss would have preferred that is, Beim Schlafenghen (Time to Sleep), September, Fruhling (Spring) and lastly Im Abendrot (At Sunset), especially in a live performance on stage where atmosphere and mood-setting strictly establishes the framework for a breathless experience. Moreover, surprisingly, Miss Isokoski reverted from singing the final two words (Augen zu) of the second song September in one breath, which is quite different from the norm, and surely this could have been easily overcome unless there are artistic reasons otherwise. Finally, there were obvious acoustic problems to how the sound was projected and rebound within the concert hall, a recurrent diagnosis from one performance to the next, but what else could we audience do other than to succumb to imperfection in design? These limitations withstanding, one can assume that the vocal instrument of Miss Isokoski remained capable of glowing, with soaring utterance, when clearly we had among us a voice that portrayed a great persona of emotional depth and maturity. These important attributes in part accounts for her reign as the supreme Straussian soprano to date, after the great Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. There exists this inherent rightness to her voice that touches the heart of any listeners, new and old. Whether on stage or in the recording studio, Soile Isokoski¡¦s reading of the Vier Letzte Lieder reaches hors concours heights. Strauss's homage to life as portrayed in these four songs had found its ideal interpreter in the Finnish soprano, and the partnership of Soile Isokoski with Maestro Edo de Waart had proven to be a fruitful one.

During the intermission, I had the opportunity to meet with Miss Isokoski backstage to discuss in some lengths regarding her views on the art of singing and what were her views as an artist in general. First and foremost, her welcoming persona recertified how motherly and supportive a figure she actually is outside the role as a singer. In our conversation, she remarked: "Don't try to rush; take your time" as her philosophy to all [music] students, and quoting proverbs from King Solomon in the bible, where she reminded that "we should be grateful with our instruments and resources [of life], do not be superfluous and tempted with excessiveness, and be thankful of what life has given you." All seemed only common-sense, but how many can truly follow this wisdom? Soile Isokoski may be one of those rare few. A truly musical and inspiring presence, indeed without any noted exaggerations even from her off-stage apparels, Asia should be grateful to witness the music-making from a persona as grand as Soile Isokoski.

Whenever a concert features the repertoire of Strauss and Mahler, particularly with one of the latter's symphonies as part of the roster, one could rest-assure that "Great Expectations" prevail. Whenever an individual experienced any one of the symphonies written by Gustav Mahler, we are in fact hearing a program autobiography disguised in the form of music, or as some scholars referred to as a program about "the death and resurrection of a hero", the hero being Mahler himself. In fact, down to the very bare minimum, the written notes on each page of every musician's score are in part a microcosm representing the summative forces in the universe that Mahler himself valued highly. Music was used simply as a medium for him to transmit the inner forces and repulsions behind contrasting earthly motifs such fire and water, mountains and earth. In other words, Mahler's symphonies can unequivocally be viewed as a collection of Symphonies "on the Universe", whereby each symphony defined a particular stage in the natural progression of life and death and rebirth on earth.

With this in mind, Mahler's Tragic Symphony served as a perfect continuation to Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder, where elements to "tragedy" and "nature" were represented vividly at their pinnacle. Tragedy, in the meaning that we are known to, inevitably comes in different flavors and in various degrees as perceived differentially from one person to the next, even in the strictest [musical and non-musical] sense. Whereas nature, depicted by Mahler as the roaring gush of water or as the grandiose might of mountains, was represented through various colours and combinations of instruments common and new to the Orchestra. In both evenings' performance, one can perceive this sensory (musical) experience known as "tragic" not simply because of what may seem hollowing calls from vibrating strings or via dissonant calls from the oboes, flutes and clarinets, but in fact, it is a summed process through an individual's personal portal/ personal experience coupled together with the brilliance in Mahler's orchestration that triggered the motor effectors of an individual to begin to extrapolate and to objectify this musical language abstractly, defining as the feeling of tragedy. Ironically, tragedy can be represented so beautifully in music, and this Symphony is one of the examples that demands great expectation from each member of the Orchestra. Undoubtedly, representing elements of tragedy via a "single voice" may be viewed as one of the most challenging skills call upon any first-rate Conductor with his/her Orchestra. For this reason, isn¡¦t it simply magical that every time one experiences this Symphony, particularly in concert-hall where space and volume are expanded exponentially in scale compared to recordings, that one can still revert unmistakably to this feeling, known as tragic?

An unresolved conundrum perhaps, the second half of the evening's programme thus featured a philosopher's reading of Mahler's Sixth, from a faithful and experienced Mahler specialist's attempt to give music a "tragic voice". The symphony is recognized by cognoscenti as one of the most "soul-tearing" compositions known to mankind, and evidently, it was also the composer's most beloved symphony. In fact, this Symphony was Mahler's personal outcry to represent the darkest pages of life, that is, death. The Tragic Sixth has convinced many Mahlerites, including yours truly, that here was a composer who spoke personally through the hidden voices of plain instrumental music.

What elevated this live performance into the classified ranks of the truly exceptional was the insight and commitment to be heard throughout the symphony from members of the HKPO under the baton of Maestro de Waart. In the first movement, Maestro had slightly modified his tempo as compared to his acclaimed performance of this symphony with the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra version in the early 1990s (on the RCA label). With this slower approach of the first movement with the HKPO, one immediately sketched the picture of a deliberately paced march, which was carefully judged and executed without letting it a drag. Elements of a funeral march were also introduced in this movement, which transcended into a feeling of utter hopelessness and remorse. This simplistic concept of "energico" was represented sonorously as "music heard from a distance", reaching each and every listener of the concert hall as abstract images of Mahler's most-beloved mountains. This movement also adopted a classical sonata form, whereby the exposition was repeated as a feature not found in any of the other Mahler symphonies. The entire second movement Andante maintained this negative motif of hopelessness, with a gush of joy that seldom sounded this passionately under the strings and woodwind players of the HKPO, almost in the form of a nocturnal lullaby. The slowness was wonderfully spacious, giving the music a very natural flow with plentiful moments to breath. The final two movements as a whole demonstrated an appreciation to Mahler's unique ability to combine contrasting elements of late-Romanticism with early-Expressionism. The third movement Scherzo repeated elements from the first movement with a sense of nostalgia. In this process, the music also created a remarkable sense of utter despair, when ironically at the end, one comes out from the concert hall completely exhilarated. The finale fourth movement brought the emotional heights to its extreme boundaries, and this required a great deal of musicianship from each of the players as a whole, and called upon the craftsmanship of the conductor to execute this effectively. Together, these elements defined what constitutes the music as a great form of art.

In both evenings' performance, Maestro had reverted to the Critical Edition of the Mahler Sixth, which was categorized by the reversal of the order of the middle
movements, such that the second was the slow movement Andante, and the third being the Scherzo movement. The astoundingly detailed reading from the HKPO musicians reaffirmed all of Mahler's superb orchestration. In particular, the notorious Finale's three "hammer blows of fate" was omitted in Maestro de Waart's careful compliance to the score. While the hammer strokes have never sounded quite as thunderous compared to other readings of this work, the third blow was deliberately omitted, as there was superstition from Mahler to believe that the third hammer stroke would have been lethal. Maestro de Waart's demand for detailed articulation enabled these details to be available at all corners within the concert hall. Not since Herbert von Karajan's infamous Mahler Sixth performance in the mid 1970s had Mahler been given such a powerful reading. Needless to say, even to those who are musically challenged, both evening¡¦s performance indisputably triumph technically and musically, reassuring to the audiences and public at large that a first-class Orchestra is borne amongst us in Hong Kong.

Congradulations to all HKPO musicians for a tragically beautiful performance.

Patrick P.L. Lam



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