Sunday, October 4, 2015

Love, Loss, and the Sea: Soile Isokoski sings French art song

Soile Isokoski's album of lush French art songs resists easy classification. It doesn't have a title; its design doesn't seem to strive for a particular atmosphere. It is in many ways a slowly unfolding disc, subtle and richly layered. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of John Storgårds, provides a delicately nuanced reading of some of the nineteenth century's more ecstatic outpourings. While far from averse to a bit of musical decadence, I appreciated the unusually intellectual approach of Storgårds and Isokoski. Although I anticipated that Les Nuits d'Été would form the centerpiece of the disc, I found the very philosophical ecstasies of Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer to be its unexpected standout.

The lilt of Chausson's lengthy, reflective Poème can (for my tastes) too easily become stately, almost directionless in its dignity. The comparatively rapid tempi taken here--the entire piece coming in under 27 minutes--served it well, in my opinion. The tides are accounted for by the orchestration. The orchestral performance took it for granted that these would be appreciated, using dynamics to highlight details--a harp, a flute, a sudden flutter of strings--that could become a glimmer of light, a swooping bird, a sudden breeze, stirring memory. Similarly, Isokoski's restraint, using vocal coloring and text painting thoughtfully, made the lover's complaints of frozen senses, etc., all the more effective, as the expressions of a nature not normally given to histrionic outpourings.

I'm used to Berlioz's Nuits d'été as an immersive, intense emotional saga. And I love it. Isokoski's interpretation is less indulgent. The radiant security of her tone is remarkable throughout, and this authority seems to establish some distance from the febrile imaginings and the sensual images of the texts. On multiple listenings, though, I found myself increasingly involved by this reflective approach: as if such sentiments could be revisited with tenderness and without shame. The orchestral reading of the cycle, likewise, is beautifully sensitive without ever wallowing. In Duparc's "Le Manoir de Rosemonde," as in his setting of Baudelaire's gorgeous "L'invitation au voyage," there is, at last, more of the suggestion of the flesh giving rise to mystical feelings of perdition (to quote Barthes on Garbo.) Luxe, calme, et volupté! This promise, offered by Isokoski, seems unusually well thought-out, and thereby both more alluring and more precarious. "Chanson triste," arguably the most homely of the featured texts, and the least fantastical of orchestrations, offers what might be the disc's most poignant dream. The strangely rapturous song makes an appropriately bittersweet conclusion.

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