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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 32 : Beethoven, Berg, Korngold, Schumann Renée Fleming (soprano); BBC Philharmonic/Gianandera Noseda. RAH, 6.8. 2007 (CC)


The last time I heard the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms under its Chief Conductor Gianandrea Noseda was in September 2004, where the soloist was the superstar, Anna Netrebko. This time the BBC’s Manchester orchestra secured the services of a star of equal magnitude (at least in the eyes of the record companies), Renée Fleming. She certainly ensured a packed house; but I harboured doubts before the Prom, based primarily on a gala evening she did at the RFH (also back in 2004). There, shallowness ruled; from the evidence of this most recent encounter, there has been a gaining of depth and musical maturity.

The repertoire choices were fascinating, for a start. The gala evening was mainly well-known chunks, whereas here was Berg (the Seven Early Songs, with an extra song for good measure) and some little-known Korngold (excerpts from Die Kathrin and Das Wunder der Heliane). The extra song was Am Leukon, a song possibly known to those who have explored the music of Alban Berg through Willi Reich's book, which includes a facsimile. The orchestration was undertaken by Christopher Gordon.

There is much delicacy in this early group, and delicacy was something that was clearly at the top of Noseda's list of priorities. Fleming still gave an impression of self-immersion in her entry, and her lead-in to the first line of the second verse,
“Weites Wunderland ist aufgetan” did not even approach the refulgence Jessye Norman could bring to this moment in live performance. It was only towards the latter stages of this song that an inkling crept in that maybe Fleming does suit this music after all. The warm bed of supporting orchestra for the second song, Nacht clearly helped her though, and she finally took off into full flight in Die Nachtigall, which was to be her finest Berg performance of the evening.

Less than total identification with the texts was the ingredient that stopped this Berg from attaining the highest pedestal. When she sang “Mir war so bang” (“I was so afraid”), it was difficult to believe her. And she did not listen to the orchestra in the difficult opening to
Im Zimmer, so that she was not entirely with the woodwind (Noseda, too, must share in the blame here). Am Leukon (To Leukon), the curio of this performance, was notable for its fairly advanced harmonies and its moment of vocal assertion (“Trink und küsse”). The arrangement itself was in no way special, but nevertheless kept to the overall mood of the set. Fleming tended to get easily overpowered in her lower register, yet despite all the criticisms of the above this remained the best I had heard her so far. The second half of the concert brought with it a different singer.

There is some Korngold on her album with Gergiev (Decca 475 8070 – the aria we heard at this Prom from
Die Kathrin). Yet here she was even better. She clearly sees Korngold as a composer to champion, and I for one applaud her decision wholeheartedly. It is true that if I heard the music of the first part of the Kathrin aria (“Ich soll ihn niemals mehr sehn”) I would have guessed that the subject matter was emotional desolation at the parting of a beloved, but I certainly warmed to the Rosenkavalierisch Straussian tinge to the aria proper. The harmonies for “Ich ging zu ihn” from Das Wunder der Heliane, the earlier work of the two (1927, as opposed to Kathrin's 1939) seemed more advanced than those of its companion aria, yet always couched within a late-Romantic cushion. Fleming seemed totally inside the characters here. At the end, the audience’s adulation for once seemed justified.

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony opened the concert in a performance that was lithe almost to a fault (passages of mystery seemed underdone). Noseda himself cut quite a lithe figure himself, animatedly encouraging his players to dynamism (he steadfastly refused to break into one-in-a-bar, insisting on conducting each and every crotchet). The fast Allegretto scherzando lost a little of its eloquence, perhaps, and the finale was a bit low on juice, but a mention of the sterling work of the two horn players in the third movement is mandatory.

It was actually Schumann’s Second Symphony, the final work of the evening, that initally attracted me to this concert, not Fleming. It really is a work that has suffered unnecessarily from a bad press, and heard played with the conviction of Noseda and his forces it takes on the character of a masterwork. Noseda’s introduction was cleanly played but very mysterious. If the allegro could have benefited from more depth and attach from the strings, it had plenty of energy from the momentum Noseda’s tempo generated. Parts seemed to make it another “Rhenish”. The Scherzo was lovely and spiky and had some fire in its belly, while Noseda gave the Adagio espressivo an affectionate reading, with plenty of space to breathe. There were even some moments in the finale that were close to radiant.

A stimulating Prom.

Colin Clarke


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