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Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Korngold, Brad Mehldau, R. Strauss: Renée Fleming (soprano), Hartmut Höll (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York, 11.1.2011 (BH)


Schoenberg: “Jane Grey,” Op. 12, No. 1 from Two Ballads (1907)

Zemlinsky: Fünf Lieder (1907)

Korngold: “Sterbelied,” Op. 14, No. 1 (1920-1921)

Korngold: “Das Heldengrab am Pruth,” Op. 9, No. 5 (1911-1913)

Korngold: “Was du mir bist,” Op. 22, No. 1 (1928-1929)

Brad Mehldau: Songs from The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (2005)

R. Strauss: “Winterweihe,” Op. 48, No. 4 (1900)

R. Strauss: “Winterliebe,” Op. 48, No. 5 (1900)

R. Strauss: “Traum durch die Dämmerung,” Op. 29, No. 1 (1895)

R. Strauss: “Gesang der Apollopriesterin,” Op. 33, No. 2 (1896)


On one of the most frigid nights of the season, Carnegie Hall provided warmth to spare, with Renée Fleming and Hartmut Höll in a recital notable for its unusual repertoire. At this stage in her career, Fleming can place her advocacy behind whatever she chooses, such as opening with a Schoenberg rarity, “Jane Grey,” the first of Two Ballads from 1907. (I, at least, have never seen it on a recital program.) With a text by Heinrich Ammann, the song depicts the beheading of Jane Grey (the queen who was beheaded after only nine days in 1553) and her husband, set in a harmonic world not too distant from the late Romantic songs that formed the bulk of the evening. Wearing a dress with appropriately snow-capped shoulders, Ms. Fleming gave the piece an eerie cast, with Mr. Höll adding icy accompaniment.

From the same year, Zemlinsky’s
Fünf Lieder make a ravishing set, like a peacock unfurling intense chromatic feathers. Fleming was particularly touching in the final lines of “Letzte Bitte” (“Last Request”) with its final line: Lay your hand upon my eyes / until my blood glistens like the night sky: / the black boat glides like silver. Equally effective were three adroitly chosen Korngold songs, the tender, alluring “Sterbelied” (“Death Song”), the charming “Das heldengrab am Pruth” (“The Hero’s Grave on the Pruth”), and the final, tear-inducing “Was du mir bist?” (“What Are You to Me?”). In all three, Fleming and her superb partner reveled in the composer’s sweeping language, yet somehow keeping syrup at bay. In general, Fleming tended to let the music speak for itself, with little body language embellishment.

Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) writes in an eclectic idiom, and these four selections from
The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (with texts by Rilke) are disarming and intriguing, well-written for the voice, and with a small debt to jazz. I especially liked the drama of “His caring is a nightmare for us,” and the final intensity of “Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.”

But for some listeners, Fleming may have saved the best until last, with a Richard Strauss quartet of gloriously sensuous concoctions, climaxing with “Gesang der Apollopriesterin” (“Song of the Priestess of Apollo”). Here, as elsewhere in the evening, Fleming applied creamy tone, and judicious stage presence to sell—but not oversell—each of these odes to the gods of a beautiful melodic line. And since for some, too much Strauss is never enough, as encores she offered two more, including “Zueignung” and “Morgen,” flanking an impish take on “I Feel Pretty” from Bernstein’s
West Side Story. In between, she offered one of her signatures, the soaring "Glück, das mir verblieb" (a.k.a. “Marietta’s Lied”) from Die tote Stadt, and I daresay by this time any chill outside had been long forgotten.

Bruce Hodges


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