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S & H International Recital Review

An Evening of Schubert Lieder: Renée Fleming, soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano, Matthew Polenzani, tenor, René Pape, bass, James Levine, piano, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 17th, 2004 (BH)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Der Wanderer, D.489 (Pape)
Der Einsame
, D.800 (Pape)
, D.686 (von Otter)
Am See
, D.746 (von Otter)
, D.881 (Polenzani)
Du liebst mich nicht
, D.756 (Polenzani)
Lachen und Weinen
, D.777 (Fleming)
Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118 (Fleming)


Nacht und Träume, D.827 (von Otter)
Der Zwerg
, D.771 (von Otter)
Kriegers Ahnung
, D.957, No. 2 (Pape)
In der Ferne
, D.957, No. 6 (Pape)
Die Männer sind méchant
, D.866, No. 3 (Fleming)
Suleika I
, D.720 (Fleming)
Im Frühling
, D.882 (Polenzani)
Die Allmacht
, D.852 (Polenzani)


Am Feierabend, D.795, No. 5 (Polenzani)
D.795, No. 11 (Polenzani)
Im Abendrot
, D.799 (von Otter)
Der Wanderer an den Mond
, D.870 (von Otter)
Du bist die Ruh, D.776 (Fleming)
, D.433 (Fleming)
Der Wegweiser
, D.911, No. 20 (Pape)
Das Wirtshaus
, D.911, No. 21 (Pape)


Erlafsee, D.586 (Fleming)
Rastlose Liebe
, D.138 (Fleming)
An die Leier
, D.737 (Pape)
Der Atlas
, D.957, No. 8 (Pape)
, D.95 (Polenzani)
Der Musensohn
, D.764 (Polenzani)
Die junge Nonne
, D.828 (von Otter)
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus
, D.583 (von Otter)


You could be invited to much less comfortable living rooms than the one Carnegie Hall fashioned to present four of the world’s greatest vocalists, with one of the world’s greatest conductors at the keyboard, in last night’s overwhelmingly generous recital of Schubert lieder (the evening shut down just before 11:00 p.m.) In a pool of light on the darkened stage, four midnight blue overstuffed chairs and a couple of small tables were grouped around the piano, all resting on some warm-hued carpets in cozy benevolence. A couple of brandy snifters scattered here and there would not have felt out of place.

If the legendary René Pape got the evening off to a slightly shaky start, with James Levine sounding equally pale, things improved rapidly after the first few songs. Maybe everyone just needed time to settle in to the new digs. By the time Pape reached his second set, with the stormy In der Ferne (From Afar), all hesitation had been forgotten and its final line, Greetings from him who is fleeing out into the wide world! had the audience cheering. During the second half of the program, a somber Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) with its stark opening, My path brought me to a graveyard, had Pape projecting strongly with beautiful, shadow-filled tone, and his final An die Leier (To the Lyre) and Atlas were completely memorable.

One of the most intelligent singers around, Anne Sofie von Otter seemed the most ideally suited to the material. In her second song, Am See (By the Lake), she did a lovely job with the charming echo effect Schubert employs to illuminate the phrase viele, viele. In addition to some other high points, her final Gruppe aus dem Tartarus provided a gripping end to the evening, as she squarely faced the audience to deliver the astonishing Eternity whirls in its sphere above them, breaking the scythe of Saturn in two. (And since folks will want to know, she looked great in a dark purple velvet dress, almost black, a nice complement to her colleague who also looked swell swathed in an iridescent dark green. The guys, having fewer sartorial options, apparently nixed the aqua tuxedos in favor of basic white tie.)

Renée Fleming, whose voice I adore, sounded lovely but I have to ask whether her glorious instrument was really shown at its best here. My own personal caveat aside, there was a lot to enjoy, such as her humorous characterization in Die Männer sind méchant (Men are Cruel), producing some well-deserved laughs in the song’s escalating sexual anxiety. And in what I thought was one of the night’s artistic peaks, Du bist die Ruh (You Are Repose), she floated some extraordinarily clear high notes, with the transfixed audience held perfectly quiet during the rests that followed. As she moulded the final lines, The temple of my eyes by your radiance alone is illumined/Oh, fill it completely!, the audience became a bit unhinged, cheering wildly as Levine, clearly moved, reached over from the piano to grasp Fleming’s hand.

Matthew Polenzani also had his share of thrilling moments, such as Die Allmacht (Omnipotence) that closed the first half with a fierce rush of sound that no doubt had patrons buzzing over their glasses of champagne at the interval. He returned immediately after the break to plunge in again with Am Feierabend (In the Restful Evening), equally compelling and whose daunting piano part, as demonstrated by Levine, is hardly restful. And Polenzani could not have sounded better than in his penultimate number, the plaintive Adelaide, which might have been the most gently beautiful song on the entire program.

Levine clearly loves this music (I have heard a rumor that outside the opera house, Schubert is his favorite composer.) His alertness and tender care in supporting these singers are prized qualities that, despite the large universe of pianists, don’t appear all that often. As a musically astute friend noted, singers like him because he makes them look good. While he is as awesome as they come in towers of complexity like Moses und Aron, one can only hope that he is able to continue offering the occasional starry, yet intimate evening like this one.

Bruce Hodges




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