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Renée Fleming [Photo by Andrew Eccles courtesy of Decca]
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Vienna: the window to modernity

This recital, which focused on a narrowly specific time and place — 1888-1933 Vienna — paradoxically illuminated not only the musical scope and richness of that epoch but also, as Renée Fleming notes in her prefatory programme article, the extraordinary extent of the diversity, transformation and flux, both historical and cultural, that characterised the era.

Vienna: the window to modernity

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Renée Fleming [Photo by Andrew Eccles courtesy of Decca]


Selecting five composers “whose tracks were closely linked” — personally, musically and influentially — Fleming began with Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler, both born in 1860 and students of Robert Fuchs at the Vienna Academy of Music, but whose music developed in divergent ways.

Wolf’s Goethe Lieder began quite conservatively, though relaxed and discursive in delivery. Although a little subdued and restrained, Fleming conjured a pastoral sweetness in ‘Frühlings übers Jahr’ (‘Spring all year round’) and ‘Gleich und gleich’ (‘Like to like’). Her trademark generous legato helped to establish an easy ambience, strolling through meadows where ‘snow-white snowdrop bells are swaying’ and ‘crocuses unfold their intense glow’; yet while the elision of consonants may have aided the luxurious tone and silky sinuousness, occasionally the trademark portamenti took one liberty too many.

Pianist Maciej Pikulski’s understated accompaniment — delicate, suggestive, airy — was surprisingly effective in complementing the rhythmic freedom and tonal blossoming of the voice; this was particularly noticeable in ‘Die Bekehrte’ (‘The repentant shepherdess’), where Pikulski’s unassuming yet sensitive traceries contributed much to the mood of modest ruefulness. In ‘Anakreons Grab’ (‘Anacreaon’s grave’) the performers communicated an affecting meditative tranquillity.

Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder followed. In these songs we see the Mahler who looks within himself for answers to twentieth-century crises — personal, musical, social and political; and Fleming’s approach - more concerned for the overall musical line than in small nuances of text — is well-suited to music which offers a full and intense expression of personality. Growing from the delicate whisperings of ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!’ (‘I breathed a gentle scent’), Fleming gradually extended her range of colour; in ‘Mitternacht’ she vividly invested the repetitions of the title with deeply evocative hues. Voice and piano, both remarkably restrained, conversed intimately in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’), and produced a disquieting ‘peace’ in the final verse, the sound palely dissolving with the line ‘Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!’ (‘And I rest in a quiet realm’).

I had not been convinced during the Wolf and Mahler that the expanse of the Barbican Hall, even when bathed in a glossy pink glow, was truly the most appropriate venue for these intimate lieder. However, in the second half of the recital, which began with Schoenberg and moved on to Zemlinsky and Korngold, the spaciousness was filled with Fleming’s blooming gleam, the size of the venue granting her the amplitude and resonance required to commit fully to the music’s grandiose emotional outbursts.

Fleming offered helpful introductions to the sometimes challenging music offered, engaging her audience directly, although Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Op.2 No.1 (not to be confused with the later melodrama of the same title), a setting of a Richard Dehmel poem describing the sexual anticipation of two lovers, and Jane Grey Op.12, an ardent ballad telling of the fate of the young woman who ruled England for just nine days in 1553, needed no ‘justification’. This is music of pained intensity, and Fleming conveyed the narratives directly and with emotional freedom. Pikulski contributed considerably to the melancholic poise which tempered the animation of the emotional tales.

Zemlinsky’s Fünf Lieder auf Texte von Richard Dehmel are more enigmatic, but Fleming’s legato sheen did much to bring coherence to these ambiguous fragments. Bitterly chromatic and characterised by unexpected harmonic twists, these songs, unpublished in the composer’s lifetime, seem determined to retain their secrets; they may have been prompted by Zemlinsky’s disquiet at the affair between his sister Mathilde, who was married to Schoenberg, and the painter Richard Gerstl, who later committed suicide when Mathilde returned to her husband in 1908. Fleming’s confident, accurate rendering offered a route to understanding while never destroying their mystery.

Fleming concluded her Viennese sojourn with the music Erich Korngold. The broadly elegiac chromaticisms of ‘Sterbelied’, a setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘When I am Dead’ — but, why did the programme present a rather lifeless re-translation of the German version of the original, rather than Rossetti’s original poem? — blossomed into the spacious lines of ‘Was du mir bist?’ (‘What are you to me?’), where Fleming’s expansiveness at the top was finally indulged in astonishing blooms of wonderful sound, a paradox of weight and ethereality. Here, Fleming demonstrated how she can release the fullness of her voice at the moment when the text demands but, like an emotional ambush, still catch us unawares. Concluding the Korngold sequence, the composer’s take on Johann Strauss II’s waltz, ‘Frag mich off’ (‘I often wonder’), allowed Fleming to indulge her kitschier, melodramatic instincts.

The omission of Fleming’s beloved Richard Strauss was remedied in the first of three encores, ‘Zueignung’, which was effortlessly gleaming and luminous. Delibes’ ‘Les Filles de Cadix’ was, Fleming declared, designed as a sorbet to refresh the palette after “too much sachertorte”. The trills were perhaps less tight and tremulous than of old, but the elevated vocalism just as winning: embarking upon the wrong verse text, Fleming offered a nonchalant shrug, set off again and won a round of applause! Korngold’s ‘Mariettas lied’ from Die tote Stadt signed off a consummate display of musical artistry and eloquent communication. Pikulski’s playing in the closing bars was exquisitely graceful and charmingly tender.

So much for the music; glorious as it was, at times it was at risk of being over-shadowed by ‘The Diva’. The avidly warm welcoming reception, the statuesque frocks — an extravagant golden silk confection garnered the pseudo-apology, ‘I wanted you to get the Klimt connection’ — the insouciant banter and the rapturous standing ovation all indicated that a ‘star’ had alighted.

But, she deserved the adulation and the rapturous standing ovation: it was clear that she could ask her voice to do whatever she willed, confident that the result would be technically masterful yet seem effortlessly articulated.

Just one tiny, humble, suggestion: if your feet can’t be seen beneath the taffeta fanfares, there’s no point crippling yourself in tottering, un-walkable Louboutins — when you sing this gloriously, flat pumps will do!

Claire Seymour

Click here for the programme and other information relating to this recital

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