Strauss: Four Last Songs; Lieder

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Ondine
WORKS: Four Last Songs; Lieder
PERFORMER: Soile Isokoski (soprano); Berlin RSO/Marek Janowski
So demanding are the soaring lines of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, and so distinguished the galaxy of stars that have interpreted them, that it is a brave soprano who attempts to outshine them. The Finnish Soile Isokoski, however, has in recent years won glowing praise for her operatic appearances in major opera houses. And with this recording of Strauss’s valedictory masterpiece, she shows that she can stand comparison with the best.

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Isokoski’s voice is not opulent like Jessye Norman’s, nor as sheerly mellifluous as, say, Renée Fleming. Rather it has the light, silvery quality of Gundula Janowitz, as heard on her classic 1973 DG recording with Karajan, but more than that of almost any other exponent, it is even throughout the compass. Her carolling birdsong in ‘Spring’ is floated to perfection, and in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, the soul wheels gloriously in flight. Moreover, while Janowitz’s sublime account is crippled by Karajan’s glutinous tempi, Isokoski has the benefit of Marek Janowski, who finds a suitable balance between forward motion and sensuous experience. The sense of moving gently towards the realm of eternal peace at the end of ‘Im Abendrot’ is achieved with consummate skill.

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A group of 11 other songs with orchestral accompaniment, among which ‘Befreit’ stands out for its poignant parting of loved ones, makes for a highly competitive coupling, in spite of a frequently sibilant edge to the string sound. Isokoski and Janowski choose to forgo the traditional climax in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, emphasising the intimacy of the soul’s nocturnal journey, though some may feel short-changed as a result. I shall not be dispensing with Jessye Norman, and certainly not with the incomparable Schwarzkopf. But this new recording is up there with the greatest of them. Barry Millington