This boxed set brings together two releases featuring Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski. In the collection of orchestral songs by Richard Strauss, Isokoski demonstrates that this is obviously repertoire in which she is fully at ease, and which is ideally suited to her voice. Strauss demands a nuanced command of a broad range of vocal colors and weights, and the singer shows an idiomatic mastery of his style. She has the suppleness and lightness to make "Säusle, liebe Myrte" really sparkle, and she brings a rich warmth to "September" and "Im Abendrot." And she can soar radiantly in "Befreit," and in all the Four Last Songs. Isokoski's voice doesn't have the natural luminosity or openness to put this in the very top ranks of recordings of these songs, but hers is a very fine performance; it should delight her fans and also be of interest to listeners who love the songs and who savor hearing a variety of interpretations. Marek Janowski leads Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in a rhythmically supple performance, although the strings don't have the richness of the most acclaimed orchestras. He doesn't fully capture the twilight glow of the Four Last Songs, and the ending of "Im Abendrot" comes across as flaccid rather than evocative. The sound of Ondine's 2001 recording is warm and nicely ambient, but it tends to slightly favor the orchestra so that Isokoski doesn't always shine with the brightness of which she is clearly capable.
The collection of Finnish songs comes from the country's National Romantic period, which extended from the late 19th through the early to mid-20th century. The songs are consistently lovely and lyrical, but they are also surprisingly consistent in style, given the fact that the birth dates of the composers span more than a century; "Lapin ädin kehtolaulu," by Kalervo Hämäläinen, born in 1917, is idiomatically almost indistinguishable from the songs of Fredrik Pacius, born in 1809. Only a few songs venture even slightly into the harmonies of the late Romantic period. Anyone looking for a collection of warmly lyrical songs, many of which have a folk-like simplicity, should be pleased with this album. Listeners who expect variety and contrast in a vocal recital are less likely to be interested. Isokoski sings with passion and commitment; she obviously knows these songs inside out and has their spirit in her blood. Her voice is intensely focused and bright, but does not sound large or especially warm on this recording, and it can occasionally verge on a pinched sound in its upper reaches. Pianist Marita Viitasalo provides a supportive and supple accompaniment. Ondine's sound is clean but unforgivingly close.