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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Renée Fleming, soprano
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Rec The Hit Factory, New York 16-20 November 2000, 13-14 January 2001
DECCA 467 697-2 [73.01]

NIGHT SONGS
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Claire de lune (op.46 no.2) [2.57]
Mandoline (op.58 no.1) [1.42]
Après un rêve (op.7 no.1) [3.22]
Soir (op.83 no.2) [2.12]
Nell (op.18 no.1) [2.57]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Beau soir [2.48]
Mandoline [1.19]
Apparition [3.40]
Chansons de Bilitis

I. La Flûte de Pan [2.41]
II. La Chevelure [3.30]
III. Le tombeau des naiades [2.43]

Joseph MARX (1882-1964)
Nocturne [3.19]
Nachtgebet [3.04]
Selige Nacht [2.47]
Pierrot Dandy [1.51]

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ruhe, meine Seele! (op.27 no.1) [4.13]
Schlechtes Wetter (op.69 no.5) [2.12]
Leises Lied (op.39 no.1) [2.35]
Leise Lieder (op.41a no.5) [2.49]
Cäcilie (op.27 no.2) [2.09]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Zdes knorosho (op.21 no.1) [2.16]
V molchani nochi taynov (op.4 no.3) [2.57]
Rechnaya lilya (op.8 no.1) [1.21]
Son (op.38 no.5) [3.41]
Eti latniye nochi (op.27 no.2) [1.48]
Ne poy, krasavista (op.4 no.4) [5.42]


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A little night music from two internationally famous soloists. There is no reason why they should automatically hit it off, but they do, and the results are spectacular. Fleming and Thibaudet make a fantastic, and entirely natural partnership. For a start they both have a bit of showbiz about them; a more immaculately dressed couple of musicians would be hard to imagine. But they are both extremely gifted - technically and musically – and furthermore, their gifts and concerns dovetail to make a convincing whole. Both are interested in the infinite little shadings, the colours that make songs so beautiful, and neither are afraid to strain for the extreme that makes them interesting.

Thibaudet is a fantastic accompanist, or collaborator as Fleming more accurately calls him. He has worked with top quality singers before – recordings with Bartolli and Fassbaender – and understands the art of songs perfectly. His voicing is immaculate, and his sense of balance, both within the piano writing and with the singer is excellent Fleming is at the height of her powers, an artist whose interpretations Strauss are pre-eminent amongst current singers. His music is represented here, almost a calling card, but she has indulged her Francophile tendencies, and also her musicological ones, including some lesser known works by Marx and Rachmaninov.

Indeed, the most enjoyable of the many fine aspects to this disc is that in its beautifully varied selection it captures so many aspects of the night : the tired, the erotic, the warm, the cold, the long, the short. Some are obvious choices, like Fauré’s Clair de Lune, some inspired, like the Marx selection and some tenuous, like the Chansons de Bilitis, but they all combine to make a most beautifully varied dish.

Although the technical performances are stunning, the French songs that open this album seem to me the least successful, although these things are relative. They are a little robust for my cliché-ridden taste, perhaps a little over-wrought at the climax, and her Debussy, whilst admirably free of mist or vagueness, is a little too direct.

Everything else is pure gold however. The Strauss lieder are every bit as good as you imagined they would be. The Rachmaninov songs are deliciously dark. My favourite of all are the four Marx songs. They are well worth discovering, introverted and delicate music of real yearning. The performances are gorgeous, the two musicians in complete sympathy with each other and the music, alternately soaring convincingly and whispering tenderly. Gorgeous.


Aidan Twomey

In complete contrast is the review from Jonathan Woolf. This is only the second critical review of this recording I have seen, the other was by David Vernier on Classic Today, although Stephin Pruslin was equivocal in IRR and several correspondents on rec.music.clasical.recordings were venting spleen. It is interesting that this disc was released later in the UK than anywhere else - did Decca suspect something?. We welcome your comments via the feedback bulletin board (link below) - LM

This recital promises much: crepuscular and night shrouded songs by the two greatest French song composers, by Strauss and his younger German contemporary, the still undervalued Joseph Marx and finishing with six of Rachmaninov’s equally underplayed songs. Fleming herself is one of the admired of singers and in Thibaudet she has an accompanist quite capable of harnessing his soloistic impulses in the interests of real artistic collaboration. And yet what a disappointment it is. There is a fatal lack of differentiation, a sameness of approach that I found increasingly worrying and wearying. There is seldom less than technical finesse but equally seldom more than the mere elucidation of text and music and sometimes not even that.

Fleming’s French is frequently unidiomatic – Thibaudet might have saved her from some of her more serious problems – but more than that is her low level of engagement with the music and its dramatic and lyrical life. Mandoline, in Fauré’s setting, lacks animation, Après un rêve skates rudely over the surface replete with what I hesitate but have to call a fake expressivity (at 2’30) that is as perplexing as it is limiting. For all her beautiful breath control, for all Thibaudet’s assurance, these are performances of Fauré singing quite impossible to bear any kind of comparison with, say, Elly Ameling or Frederica von Stade.

Yes, Thibaudet’s rippling and rubato-rich playing of Debussy’s Mandoline is fine. Yes, there is real animation in the singing here and Fleming’s lower voice is excellently equalized and under firm control but why the operatic flourishes in Apparition, pushing the voice so hard and uningratiatingly? And the Marx songs, whilst more than welcome, equally nowhere operate on a sustained level of involvement. The selections – whether impressionistic or animated – receive rather monochrome performances. I sensed that it was only with the Strauss that Fleming mined a deeper vein of subtlety. If her singing here does still seem a mite generic in its response it does also seem rather more complexly alive to text and music than anywhere else on the disc - in Ruhe, meine Seele! for example or Schlechtes Wetter where she is never overbearing or unsubtle. In Rachmaninov’s Zdes khorosho – a most beautiful song – her softened tone, with unforced ease, is a pleasure to hear whereas Son seems to me fluttery and sentimentalised as in Eti letniye nochi she sacrifices tone to force her voice to no discernible musico-dramatic advantage. All very disappointing.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 

 


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