Soprano Soile Isokoski, whose recent disc of Strauss orchestral songs came as a revelation to many, participated in this project, along with her accompanist Marita Viitasalo, both artists drawing upon their childhood and professional experience with church music to record over forty hymns together. Twenty of them compose the program on this Ondine disc.
There is no question that these hymns are sung and played beautifully. However, it is in the nature of hymns that they are written to be sung by everyone in a congregation, so ranges tend to be limited and melodies, while often quite beautiful, are usually simple enough to be grasped in the course of a few verses by untrained singers. This does not leave much room for Isokoski to dazzle us with vocal technique, even assuming that she wanted to do so. Quoting from Isokoski’s remarks in the CD booklet: “Singing hymns makes you feel small and humble. It is really difficult, because it is so open and exposed. There is nothing but that simple melody that you have to sing purely.”
She lives up to this commitment to purity, lovingly spinning out each phrase with even tonal coloring and subtle dynamic variation. Viitasalo’s accompaniment, varying among the hymns between piano and harmonium, supports the vocal line with the same purity and subtlety. Occasionally there are interesting interludes, but often the accompaniment simply provides harmonizing chords underneath the main vocal melody, as is fitting for this kind of music.
The difficulty for non-Finnish speakers (and that, regrettably, is most of us) is that, while the texts of the hymns are all reproduced in the CD booklet, they are only printed in Finnish. (About three pages of notes about the recording and artist bios are also translated into English.) The sole clue as to content that we draw right away from the pure singing style is a generalized feeling of heartfelt reverence, although it is also clear that Isokoski knows exactly what she is singing and really cares about it. I was not familiar with any of these hymns, although most of them sound familiar enough, being generally from the same northern European tradition as the Presbyterian church hymns I grew up with. (Lutherans may recognize more of them than I do.) An exception is the short “Ilta on tullut luojani”, which is sung a capella, emphasizing the somewhat exotic nature of the melody itself. (The information about each hymn is supplied in Finnish only, so I can only guess at this hymn’s history, but its presentation is evocative of folk song, rather than a standard Protestant hymn).
So the result is a beautifully performed program that may not be able to hold the undivided attention of the non-Finnophone classical music listener for its entire 62-minute duration. For most, the choice to acquire this disc will most likely depend upon one’s individual listening habits, appreciation for hymns in general or for the sound of Soile Isokoski’s voice, and/or familiarity with the Finnish language. But I expect that, if one even partially fits the profile of Finnophone lover of sacred music performed with devotion and integrity by a fine interpretive duo of classical song, this disc will be a welcome addition.