Soprano Stands Out In a Finnish Crowd

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 30, 2005

The soprano Soile Isokoski, yet another wonderful Finnish musician, made her Washington debut at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Thursday night in a recital sponsored by the Vocal Arts Society.

No country places a greater value on classical music than Finland, with its staggering array of symphony orchestras, concert halls and opera houses apportioned to a nation with barely 5 million people. Helsinki sometimes seems the 21st-century answer to historic Vienna -- a city that produces important artists as a tree bears fruit. A big claim, I know, but even if we limit the supporting evidence to conductors alone, Esa-Pekka Salonen has been the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than a decade, Osmo Vanska now leads the Minnesota Orchestra and any short list of bright, in-demand maestros would have to include the names Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo and the spectacularly gifted Mikko Franck, the last of whom is still in his mid-twenties.

Although she sang in the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Halevy's "La Juive" in 2003, Isokoski is best known in the United States for her recordings, of which there have been many. She began with a Mozart set, and from the first phrase of "Ridente la calma" it was apparent that she combined a sweet and versatile tone, keen formal intelligence, warm yet proportionate lyricism and a welcome recognition that she did not have to blast to make herself heard throughout the hall. Throughout the recital, she was always loud enough, and never any louder -- of how many singers can this be said?

Touring Finns tend to be ambassadors for Scandinavian music: Isokoski brought cycles by the Swedish Ture Rangstrom (1884-1947) and the contemporary Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen (born 1935). The Rangstrom selections -- a setting of five poems by Bo Bergman titled "Den Morka Blomman" ("The Dark Flower") -- are interesting in the way they putter along with a spare, near-defiant folkish simplicity and then, just as you think you've figured them out, they throw you a subtle curve (an unexpected harmony, a strange emphasis) that restores your curiosity.

Sallinen, a much more significant composer, was represented by "Four Dream Songs" (1972), although these urgent miniatures, with their stark octaves and reiterative tics, call to mind a tortured, self-lacerating insomnia rather than any "dreams" I've had. Sallinen is best known for his operas, and the "Four Dream Songs" had the dramatic potency of mini-operas, especially when sung with the dark intensity that Isokoski brought to her performance.

It was Isokoski's fierce attention to the melding of words and music that made her selection of eight songs from Hugo Wolf's "Italienisches Liederbuch" so captivating. The received knowledge about Wolf is that playing his songs on, say, the clarinet or flute would make them meaningless, that everything depends on the shadings a singer brings to the nuances in Wolf's chosen poetry. There is much truth in this statement -- and yet I've heard too many performances of these songs in which the shadows overwhelm the substance. It should not be forgotten that these quivering, ultra-subtle miniatures are also good tunes by anybody's standards. Wolf never forgot it, and neither did Isokoski. These were fresh, openhearted performances that satisfied on every level; at times they were even funny.

The program closed with Wagner's "Wesendonk Lieder" -- how strange to hear so many of the epic orchestral passions of "Tristan und Isolde" (from which there are several quotations) reduced to the "small screen" of soprano and piano. And yet, hearing this music in a less familiar context, one is taken anew by its radical beauty and originality. Isokoski's singing seemed both hypnotic and hypnotized, as if she were both channeling and being channeled by this fluid and volatile music. Marita Viitasalo was the superb accompanist -- a sensitive, thoughtful artist who never oversteps but always adds her own qualities to anything she plays.

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