STRAUSS:  Four Last Songs. Das Rosenband.  Ich wollt ein Str”usslein binden.  S”usle, liebe Myrte.  Als mir dein Lied erklang.  Befreit.  Ruhe, meine Seele!, Wiegenlied.  Meinem Kinde.  Zueignung.  Morgen!, Die heiligen drei K–nige aus Morgenland.
Soile Isokoski, soprano; Berlin Radio Symphony Orch/Marek Janowski, cond.
ONDINE ODE 982 (F) (DDD) TT:  64:24

The last issue of Schwann/Opus listed about twenty recordings of Four Last Songs. No doubt the worst ever made, and mercifully deleted, are retched accounts by Gwyneth Jones and Eva Marton. By general consensus, the finest are those by Gundula Janowitz, Jessye Norman and the two by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, challenged by the more recent RCA issue with RenČe Fleming and the Houston Symphony directed by Christoph Eschenbach.  Now we have this remarkable new recording by young Finnish soprano Soile Isokowski (pronounced SEW-ee-lay EE-sew-kah-ski).  She graduated from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and made her debut there in 1986 after which she won several prestigious awards. Her opera debut was Mimi in La BohËme at the Finnish National Opera. Since then, Isokowski has appeared in all leading opera houses in Europe, making her Met debut in January 2002 as the Countess in Marriage of Figaro. She has appeared with most leading conductors of our time and in 1997 recorded Donna Elvira in Claudio Abbado's Don Giovanni.

Isokowski's voice has a ringing purity of production, total ease in the upper register and is always right on pitch. Her interpretation of Four Last Songs is rather cool and detached, but perfectly sung.  Surprisingly, she doesn't sing the final two words (Augen zu) of the second song, September, in one breath; I'm sure she easily could have done so if she wished. Doubtless as the years pass Isokowski's interpretation of this music will gain more insight into the text—however, it is a delight to hear this music—and the other 11 songs—sung with vocal beauty such as hers.

Janowski's accompaniments are fine although without the insight of Eschenbach (the most sensitive reading of the orchestral part I've ever heard), or Karajan.  Ondine's recording, made July 2001 in Berlin's Jesus-Christus-Kirche, is excellent.  I look forward to future recordings by this superb young soprano.

R.E.B. (August 2002)