Philharmonia Orchestra

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, May 24 2005

Philharmonia Orchestra. Sir Andrew Davis, conductor. Soile Isokoski, soprano.

  • Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela
  • Strauss: Four Last Songs
  • Beethoven: Eroica
I’ve been wondering for days quite what to write about this concert, and why it was so hard to pin down. I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite various things it had going for it, in the end it was bland, and the blandness was probably down to the ever reasonable, ever measured, ever British Sir Andrew Davis, standing in for Dohnanyi, who is ill.

Bland isn’t a kind word to use about Soile Isokoski. Her recording of the Four Last Songs is the best recent one I’ve heard, closest yet to Lisa della Casa’s, and a great deal more satisfactory than one famous American diva’s. She is a scrupulous singer, shaping and phrasing beautifully, and with a gorgeous upper medium which is what these songs most call for; but she is scrupulously unspectacular and un-diva-like.

So although, of course, the Philharmonia negotiated the gentle ripples and cascades of this deceptively simple-seeming score with great elegance, and although it seems unfair to offer any criticism at all of such an honest singer in these times of pop-influenced crossover stars, a spark of something extra – the extra bloom of della Casa, perhaps - was missing in Isokoski’s deceptively simple singing. And hers is a medium-sized voice, occasionally hard to hear over the large orchestra.

I wondered if the orchestra was tired. They’re in Paris in fact to play in the Châtelet’s pit for a re-run of Arabella; indeed, the concert, rather oddly, took place on the opera set: the flashy lobby of a modern luxury hotel, with gold leaf walls and glass-sided escalators. But they’d had Monday off.

Perhaps it was just Sir Andrew’s overall unspectacular, undemonstrative approach. In the Eroica, he seems to have been influenced by HIP: the vibrato was restrained, the horns played up their rustic, hunting sound (in distinct contrast with the studied, aristocratic elegance of the NY Phil the last time they were here with this work), the tempi were lively throughout, including the funeral march.

But I’ll repeat myself by stating that I really no longer care to hear Beethoven played by modern, Rolls-Royce orchestras, any more than I care to hear Rameau on a Bösendorfer. Beethoven’s score, which must have astonished its first audiences, so bizarre it must have seemed, was smoothed over and tamed by the sleek modern instruments, and the Philharmonia is such a virtuoso band that any tension arising from the difficulty of the piece is simply absent.

At the end of a weekday, when your audience are dashing in, on public transport, from a trying stint at the office, is the dreary Swan of Tuonela really what’s needed to wake them up and get their attention? I don’t think so.

A bland and unmemorable evening – apart from Isokoski’s wonderful upper medium!


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