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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Purcell, Crumb, Previn, Berg, Schumann: Renée Fleming, Hartmut Höll, Barbican Hall, 03.11.2005 (ME)

 

 

There are few things more mortifying than having to admit that your editor is right after all, especially when the subject is a singer to whom you both have given one ‘rave’ review, but I have to admit that this publication’s editor realized much sooner than I did, that although Renée Fleming has a lovely voice, her recitals can prove a great disappointment. I have admired her in Strauss songs and as Desdemona, and when she introduced the second of her encores, by André Previn, with the remark that she had sung the ‘Four Last Songs’ at his birthday concert, I found myself wishing that the evening had included some pieces by Strauss in place of much that was decidedly either unsuitable for her style, or about which she simply had little to say.

Purcell is the standard beginning to a recital, but nowadays one expects to hear a certain kind of vocal production and interpretation if his music is to make its full impact: The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation was an ambitious first work, but only the lyrical passages such as ‘Me Judah’s daughters once caress’d’ showed Fleming’s voice to advantage, since much of the rest was quite effortful in execution, with many awkwardly placed breaths, such as between the words ‘tyrant’s’ and ‘court.’ Both singer and pianist seemed to be rushing things, preventing the music from making its full impact, and this was also true of the rest of this group: ‘Sweeter than roses’ really needs to have some of its lines caressed rather than tackled headlong, and as for ‘I attempt from love’s sickness to fly’ I have seldom heard so inappropriate a tempo, with the heartbreaking ritornello ‘Since I am myself my own fever and pain’ sung and played as jauntily as if it were a hey-nonny invitation to a country dance.

George Crumb wrote ‘Apparition’ for Fleming’s teacher Jan DeGaetani, and the work is obviously dear to her; she was on much more suitable territory here, managing the very wide range of Crumb’s  Whitman settings with aplomb, from the softest whisper at ‘Dark mother, always gliding near with soft feet’ to the most dramatic outbursts. The work sets equal challenges for the pianist, and if one must have the piano played from the strings as much as from the keyboard it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better than Hartmut Höll. The accompaniment was also a strength in Previn’s ‘The Giraffes Go To Hamburg,’ a wistfully told tale from Karen Blixen concerning the plight of giraffes bound for the zoo, with Daniel Pailthorpe’s alto flute finely counterpointing the piano’s enigmatic commentary as well as Fleming’s lush narration.

Berg’s ‘Altenberglieder’ has never been an easy piece to perform, right from its premiere when the tenor soloist had to witness violent arguments which forcefully suggested that the composer should join the poet in his lunatic asylum; Fleming and Höll made the work sound as fresh and immediate as if it had been written this year, with no holds barred either in the dramatically evocative vorspiel to ‘Seele, wie bist du schöner’ or the daring high notes of ‘Uber die Grenzen des All.’

A set of Schumann Lieder brought the concert to a close; I had been looking forward to hearing these, but for the most part I was disappointed. Ständchen was reticently sung and played, with plenty of winsome facial expression but little emotion in the words, and as with the Purcell, the lines were very rushed. Mondnacht  however was the high point of the evening, the long – breathed lines sung with rapt intensity and played with intimate delicacy. Hochländisches Wiegenlied was another example of finely judged, quiet singing, so I had high hopes of the sublime Stille Tränen, for my money one of the most under-rated songs ever written: sadly, Fleming opted for a far too melodramatic approach, with a big sobbing breath right in the middle of ‘Stets fröhlich sei sein Herz  - this is a subtly anguished piece of music, needing a sense of understated fervour, not a full-blown piece of hand-wringing. I could only conclude that this singer has little to say about Schumann, and that if one wants to hear her at her best one should confine oneself to her Strauss, Verdi and occasionally Handel. A rapturous audience was rewarded with three encores, by Berg, Previn and Korngold, the last reminding us, as if we needed it, that Fleming can wring out those tears like very few other singers around today.

 

 

Melanie Eskenazi 

 


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)