Just before the performance of the Strauss, one of the LPO’s stage managers discreetly widened the path between first violins and cellos, the better to accommodate the multi-layered skirts of Renée Fleming’s gown, a Queen of the Night-style creation that could have easily gathered a cello or a couple of music stands into its voluminous, fine-mesh nets. Its mourning black also accentuated how tall this diva seems, almost as tall as Christoph Eschenbach plus podium, and presented her very much as a larger-than-life legend, an icon assembled over the years by her adoring fans, and blissfully unaware of any suggestion of caricature in her diva persona.
There was much to adore, especially in a performance of a work that is core repertoire for her (which she has recorded twice, with Eschenbach in 2004 and Christian Thielemann in 2008). Lovers of her line-spinning legato and tactfully deployed portamentos
will have gone home swooning. The quality of her voice never ceased to amaze in its shaded eloquence and sparingly indulged opulence, and her approach down to its chest register was impeccably subtle. She can tease the fullness of her top voice to devastating effect, and her phrasing and breathing are miracles of judgement and control.
I didn’t buy the contrived impetuosity of some operatic hand gestures and twitchy attention to words in ‘Spring’, although the blast of radiance in “Von Licht übergossen” (bathed in light) made the sort of impact Strauss must have intended. The way she hovered over the words of ‘September’ nailed Hesse’s drift towards closure with veiled precision, and she endowed ‘Going to sleep’ with a barely suggested weight, dipping in and out of her silvery half-voice and abandoning the specifics of words in the winding melisma of “Zauberkreis der Nacht” (magic circle of the night). Her control of mood and gradual withdrawal of colour in ‘At sunset’ produced a ravishing sound, with just enough edge to convey the landscape of “O weiter, stille Friede” (O spacious, silent peace).
The occasional mini-collusions between her and the conductor reminded us what a supreme technician Renée Fleming is, but in the end this was a performance of Four Last Songs limited rather than liberated by technique, her inimitable glamour and style sailing close to the winds of artifice and mannerism. Paradoxically, she got nearer to the ideal of ethereal naturalness in her first recording. There was some superlative playing glowing away in the LPO, with leader Pieter Schoeman breaking all hearts with his ravishing violin solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehn’ (Going to Sleep). The mood of transcendent disintegration wound down in her encore, a hushed account of Strauss’s Waldseligkeit, (Opus 49/1) setting Richard Dehmel.
The concert opened with a finely layered performance of the Overture to Tannhäuser, its detail enhanced by the antiphonal placing of first and second violins, cellos left-centre, violas right, and with double basses on the left, away from the brass. Eschenbach’s conducting can veer, Karajan-style, too much towards airless micro-management, but his approach to Beethoven’s Seventh was spacious and generous. We’ve all experienced more of a contrast in speed between the Introduction and the first movement proper and will have been blown away by its elemental rhythmic force, which was here a bit too civilised. There was, though, a fine accumulation of power in the second movement, and, again, the LPO was playing at the top of its form.