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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Wiegenlied, Op 49 No 4 [2:05]
Ständchen, Op 106 No 1 [1:38]
Lerchengesang, Op 70 No 2 [2:49]
Mondnacht, WoO 21 [2:37]
Des Liebsten Schwur, Op 69 No 4 [2:42]
Die Mainacht, Op 43 No 2 [4:18]
Da unten im Tale WoO 33 No 6 [2:20]
Vergebliches Ständchen, Op 84 No 4 [1:49]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Frauenliebe und -Leben, Op 42 [23:12]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Rückert-Lieder [17:54]
Renée Fleming (soprano)
Hartmut Höll (piano)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. 2017, Italian Institute of Culture, Budapest; live, October 2010, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich. DDD
German texts, English & French translations included
DECCA 483 2335 [61:23]

Renée Fleming here offers an appetising programme of Lieder, the Brahms and Schumann stemming from studio sessions in 2017, while the Mahler was recorded at three performances in Munich in 2010. I’ve long been an admirer of this fine singer so I was keen to hear her in this repertoire.

I didn’t read the booklet note before listening to the disc for the first time. In this note, which like everything else in the documentation is printed in a miniscule font with which I struggled, Kenneth Chalmers quotes a number of comments on her chosen programme by Miss Fleming. Chalmers speaks of “simplicity” in relation to the Brahms songs, which is interesting because in my listening notes, begun before reading the booklet, I’ve jotted down several comments which point in the other direction. Thus, for example, Wiegenlied receives a sophisticated performance, distinguished by lovely tone, but I wonder if Fleming perhaps misses the essential simplicity of the song. Later, Da unten im Tale is sung with feeling and predictably fine vocal quality but I’ve noted down this comment: “is the simple folksong a bit smothered?” In Lerchengesang I admired the delicacy of Hartmut Höll’s pianism and Fleming’s creamy voice, though her approach seemed rather swooning at times. There is also a good deal to admire, though. Fleming conveys successfully the eagerness of Ständchen and she’s in sumptuous voice for Mondnacht. The song I enjoyed most of all was Die Mainacht, which is gorgeously sung. Here Renée Fleming conveys a sense of longing and her long phrases give great pleasure. Overall, though, despite many positive features, I was left with the feeling that the Brahms group often suffered from a tendency to over-interpret.

I hadn’t got far into Frauenliebe und -Leben before that feeling resurfaced. ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ is sung with great feeling and ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ is full of ecstasy and eagerness. However, I thought I should remind myself how another singer might approach these songs. Wanting to compare Renée Fleming with another soprano, I dug out the performance by Juliane Banse and Graham Johnson in Hyperion’s complete Schumann song edition (review). In the first song, Banse is no less heartfelt but hers is a more direct style, eschewing some of the expressive devices that one hears from Fleming. I also feel that Graham Johnson is a bit more subtle than Hartmut Höll, though the fact that Höll is somewhat more closely recorded may have something to do with that. The second song also finds Banse to be the more direct in approach and I think the sound of her voice enables her to suggest the feelings of a young woman rather more effectively than Fleming. Miss Fleming offers beautiful singing in ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ though Banse is just as pleasing to hear, if rather less voluptuous of tone. The Fleming/Höll treatment of ‘Süßer Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an’ is opulent and expressive but, maybe, just a bit overdone: they take 5:05. Banse is slightly less expansive – as is confirmed by a timing of 4:26 – but her singing is beautifully poised and I think she gets the song just right. Fleming nails ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’, which is full of eagerness and joy. However, the last song, ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ may be more controversial. She makes the start of the song very dramatic; indeed, there’s a definite note of bitter reproach and Hartmut Höll matches this with some stark piano playing, staccatos strongly emphasised. Fleming moves into deep sorrow at the words ‘Geliebet hab’ ich und gelebt’ and sustains that emotion for the remainder of the song. In the piano postlude Höll emphasises tragedy, though I think his staccato is a bit too emphatic. Banse and Johnson offer a different way with the song. Banse is less overtly dramatic and in the last few lines of the poem her delivery suggests – rightly, I think – numb, private sorrow. Johnson is much gentler than Höll in the postlude, perhaps proposing the idea that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. For me, the Banse/Johnson approach is much closer to my ideal of these songs, though I readily admit that’s a subjective reaction.

The Mahler songs were recorded live and, once again, there is much to enjoy in Fleming’s singing. I decided that my comparison should be the classic 1969 version by Dame Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli (review) and was interested to see that Miss Fleming presents the songs in a different order to the one adopted by Baker. She opens with ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’, follows that with ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ and places ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ fourth. Dame Janet places those songs second, fourth and first respectively.

Renée Fleming does ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ very well. Baker treats the song rather differently: her singing is more inward and gentler – Rückert is talking about a gentle fragrance, after all – and that gentleness extends to the orchestra accompaniment too. Baker spins a wonderful vocal line. In the Fleming performance ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ is rapturous; there’s a Straussian opulence to the singing at times. ‘Um Mitternacht’ offers a fascinating dichotomy of views. Fleming and Thielemann take a more urgent approach – their performance lasts for nearly a minute less than the Baker/Barbirolli account. The Fleming approach is entirely tenable and it leads to a big, dramatic climax at the words ‘In deine Hand gegeben!’ However, at their slower pace Baker and Barbirolli present a darker, more probing vision of the song – the lower key and darker mezzo tints probably help. To my ears, Dame Janet digs below the surface of the text in a way that Fleming doesn’t match and when the aforementioned climax arrives it means so much more in the Baker version on account of what has gone before. I must say also that in comparison to Barbirolli’s conducting Thielemann seems almost prosaic. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ is well characterised by Fleming, who despatches it in a suitably lightly fashion.

Miss Fleming’s reading of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ is a very good one. Her singing is expansive, the line beautifully stretched out, and she conveys no little feeling. The snag is, she’s up again a Desert Island recording of the song. This is one of these cases where the stopwatch deceives; Fleming’s performance is a mere eight seconds shorter than Baker’s but there’s a timeless feel to the British singer’s performance. Fleming sings beautifully and is especially ravishing in the final stanza but Baker gives a performance such as one encounters rarely in a lifetime and with her the last stanza, delivered for the most part in that veiled mezza voce for which she was renowned, is something very special: even after living with the recording for nearly fifty years I still find her delivery of the words ‘und ruh’’ a heart stopping moment. And the triumph is as much Barbirolli’s. His conducting, and especially his use of rubato, is masterly and so sympathetic to both his soloist and the music: Thielemann doesn’t get close.

There is, then, a good deal to enjoy in this recital by Renée Fleming but I find her Brahms and Schumann somewhat overcooked and while she offers a great deal in the Rückert-Lieder I believe she has to yield to what is now, I suppose, classed as an historical recording, because it was made 50 years ago. Nonetheless, this album will give pleasure to the admirers of a distinguished singer.

Decca present the performances in very good sound. I found the booklet wearying. If Decca had dispensed with the admittedly glamorous photos of Miss Fleming inside the booklet – or even just one of them – it should have been possible to print the notes and texts in a font that can easily be read even if, like me, you don’t have twenty-twenty vision.

John Quinn

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