Renée Fleming – Four Last Songs

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Strauss
Vier letzte Lieder
Ariadne auf Naxos – Ach! Wo war ich? Tot?; Ein Schönes war: hieß Theseus-Ariadne; Es gibt ein Reich
Verführung, Op.33/1
Freundliche Vision, Op.48/1
Winterweihe, Op.48/4
Zueignung, Op.10/1
Die ägyptische Helena – Zweite Brautnacht!

Renée Fleming (soprano)

Münchner Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann

Recorded April 2008 in Philharmonie am Gasteig, Munich


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: October 2008
CD No: DECCA 478 0647
Duration: 55 minutes

It has become customary to apply the label “Strauss soprano” to Renée Fleming, despite the fact that her opera repertoire encompasses works by Handel, Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Massenet. Though often quoted as regarding Strauss as her favourite composer, she has in fact sung relatively few performances of Richard Strauss in the theatre. There are perhaps signs of a move towards a greater slice of career-time being devoted to the composer, with “Capriccio” in the van (a new production at the Vienna State Opera in June this year, followed by the ‘Schlußszene’ from that opera at the Met’s opening gala).

This CD seems to be part of this move: Fleming revisits “Four Last Songs” which she recorded earlier with Christoph Eschenbach, adds some more orchestral songs and widens her range of Strauss operatic characters to include Ariadne and Helena in their major numbers.

This recording was made at live performances, so what we hear is presumably an engineered compilation. “Four Last Songs” were premiered by the Wagnerian colossus Kirsten Flagstad but as the work has established itself in the repertory might of voice has become less important than beauty of timbre and sensitivity of interpretation. I can understand why Fleming should wish to set down a reconsidered reading more than a decade after her first, as the voice itself has acquired extra dimensions in the intervening time.

The opening lines of ‘Frühling’ bring forward an increase in power and eloquence of Fleming’s chest register as the poet sets up the context of dreary winter in which he dreams of the coming of spring. The forward momentum admirably created by Christoph Thielemann soon gives way to leaps upward around and above the top of the stave, where the singer remains comfortably for the rest of the song. In musicianly support, the conductor observes the soft and subito piano markings which accompany several of her entries; only her final phrase receives a surge of reinforcement. The other departure is the explicit treatment of particular words: “es zittert durch all’ meine Glieder” is sung with an audible shiver, bringing out the sensual undertones of this superficially abstract poetry.

The words “Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt” in the ensuing ‘September’ receive similar underlining and Fleming’s use of portamento conveys the weight of her drooping eyelids in the last phrase. Once or twice she breaks phrases for breath where we have come to expect miracles of control from performers of this work. The generally lower tessitura of this song causes the emphasis to shift somewhat to orchestral detail and the final page, with its horn melody and deep string chords, is sublime.

This trend is taken further through the violin solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, hesitant in treatment, as is the voice when it enters. By contrast, ‘Im Abendrot’ may be Strauss’s valediction but its tone in this reading is not one of wilting regret, rather of proud celebration. The orchestral peroration at the start resembles a glorious, golden late burst of sunshine, followed by the gradual receding of the light. That opening comes to rest with lingering horns very reminiscent of the end of the Prelude to “Der Rosenkavalier”. Fleming, whose vocalism remains firm and lucid, never maudlin, seconds the insight shown by Thielemann in his orchestral reading. The elderly couple does not go quietly: even the crucial word “Friede” is delivered with a crescendo.

There is considerable diversity in the other orchestral songs that Fleming has prepared for this release. “Verführung” received a lengthy symphonic setting, which unusually preceded the piano version. Here the evening is the opening not to death but to sex. The scoring gives hints of Strauss’s operatic style: the harp glissandos at “es hebt der Nachtwind die Schwingen weit” resemble the ‘magic’ music in “Die Frau ohne Schatten”. Thielemann brings out a great deal of orchestral colour and there are numerous opportunities for particular sections of the band to assert themselves: solos for viola and bass clarinet even. Fleming’s chest voice at the start almost verges on the crude and she leaves none of the eroticism unexplored.

The next two songs differ markedly, “Freundliche Vision” in its much lighter orchestration, just string figurations and sustaining wind, “Winterweihe” in the spirituality of its treatment of love. The velvety quality of Fleming’s high notes stand out in the latter, her concern for words in both.

The 1940 version of “Zueignung”, with the setting of the passionate string outburst in the final bars as a tribute to Viorica Ursuleac, is certainly not one of Strauss’s best orchestral songs, indeed I find it uninspiring and vulgar. Fleming seems uncomfortable with the top notes.

The remaining tracks are mainly of interest in what they promise for the direction of Fleming’s future activity in the realm of Strauss’s operas. The exultant opening solo of the eponymous heroine from Act Two of “Die ägyptische Helena” is in Brünnhilde territory. The microphone placing makes her seem to be holding own against the unrestrained orchestra but I am sure that she would not contemplate taking on the complete role. In any case the opera, which maintains a tiny toehold in the repertoire, has far more bombast than merit. Why endanger the voice for such an unrewarding piece?

The role of Ariadne is a different matter. The work is written for chamber orchestra and the part is short. The spacious medium long-shot in which the songs are recorded is replaced with a more intimate medium close-up. The early pages of the opera itself, in condensed form and without the contributions of Zerbinetta and other voices, are run together. The recitative-like passage takes the soprano down to B flat below the stave, and reminds of Christa Ludwig enacting suffering. ‘Ein Schönes war’ takes her two octaves higher, with a smoothness of vocal blending that is technically impressive. Less so is the mannered approach to the text: there is too much breathy espressivo, too much leaning meaningfully on certain words. The singer must convey an inner struggle but at “Sie atmet leicht” she over-points the words. In ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ the word-painting is more discreet and attention switches to the luminous tone of her top notes, not far removed from great predecessors such as Rysanek or Tomowa-Sintow. When she reaches “Du wirst mich befrein” she lets go, arch sophistication gives way to uninhibited elation. I deem this a successful trial run.

To return to the question of the ‘Strauss soprano’: does such a genus exist and is it uniform and easy to define? This release casts doubt on such an over-simplification. What size of voice is meant? What sort of quality? In fact there is more than one ‘Strauss soprano’, even in individual operas. In “Die Frau ohne Schatten” the soaring top register of the Empress contrasts with the full, earthy sound implied in the writing for the Dyer’s Wife. Arabella should sound maturer than Zdenka, while the three leading female roles in “Der Rosenkavalier” must be differentiated in duet and trio. To add to the intriguing complexity of this issue, in several well-known cases, a single soprano has performed all three roles over the course of a career. The composer wanted the tiny-voiced Elisabeth Schumann to sing Salome! Strauss, it appears, loved not just the soprano voice but many soprano voices.

I ought to mention that some critics who heard these concerts live found Fleming overpowered by the orchestra and blurred of enunciation. The marketing of the singer through physical glamour, with large dominant portrait photographs on the covers of her CDs, is not to my taste. The creation of a diva image seems to have acquired greater significance than her singing: reports of the Met gala made PR-generated references to her three gowns. Nevertheless, this release has plenty of interest for those who are concerned only about the music.

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