Prom 16: 1st August 2001

Overture – Carnival
Variations on the St Anthony Chorale
Exsultate, jubilate (K165/158a)
Don Juan
Four Last Songs

Renee Fleming (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

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Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 1 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A quick questionnaire. Where do you stand in the Radio 3 versus Classic FM debate? Or is it perhaps a harmonious co-existence for you? Were you enthralled by the imagination of “Amadeus” or was your purism offended? Do you look at the programme above and think, “Ah! Five gems of the orchestral and vocal repertoire,” or, “What a dog’s dinner”? And do you think television has too great an influence on the timing and content of sporting events?

This Prom raised the whole issue of contemporary presentation of classical music – the extent to which it should be popularised; the liberties that can be taken to allow it to reach a wider audience without sacrificing its integrity; and the fashionable (though hardly new) habit of lionising star performers. Could what seemed a disjointed and inconsistent choice of repertoire be justified by a need to reach a wider television audience? Would someone who simply turned up to the concert miss some of the thinking behind its presentation?

It is possible one could truly appreciate this concert only after returning home and watching what the BBC was presenting before, after and between the pieces. Only then might one see that the seemingly disconnected concert-programme was bound together by introductory comments from the conductor and soloist and by an interview (with suitably glossy and completely irrelevant background shots of Paris) with Renee Fleming during the interval. Don’t think first and second subjects of sonata form, rather hero and heroine of a drama – with musical illustrations. A stroke of luck – Fleming and Eschenbach are an established musical partnership.

Do you wonder what Exsultate, jubilate is doing in a programme of late Romantic lollipops? Wonder no more.Fleming’s career is symbolised by two noble character-roles – the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and the Countess from Le nozze de Figaro. As the other pole of Fleming’s fame, and as an exemplar of the Mozart singing that (melo)dramatically brought her fame, no self-respecting television programme would seem complete without an appropriate snippet from this composer. See it through the performers’ eyes – Christoph tells us he loved accompanying singers as a pianist; Renee that the Strauss songs are absolutely her favourite. And – horror! – she nearly retired in 1998. How lucky we are to be hearing her sing at all.

In fact, why go to the Royal Albert Hall? You know perfectly well it will be a terrible acoustic, and there will be a rabble-element. No! Stay in the comfort of your sitting-room and take advantage of the microphones and close-up shots; above all, by listening to Renee and Christoph explain the music to you, recover an intimacy and personal approach to music that the remoteness of your Albert Hall seat will never give you.

And what of that music? Tradition strikes back. Whereas the television broadcast will be packaged to appeal to a wide audience, who must have all the trimmings of entertainment to watch at all, there remains no substitute for an individual relationship between the listener, as audience member, and interpreter.

The Philharmonia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach always plays with care and precision, with silkiness and sensitivity. The wind playing in particular was excellent throughout, though the overall orchestral sound was at times too confidential, anodyne even, with detail too recessed for this hall. Dvorak’s Overture began with excellent ensemble and attack, and was perhaps most remarkable for the lyrical intermezzo section and the coda. Brahms’s Variations were uneven – beginning diffidently but with moments of real passion, as in the “hunting” variation (No.6) and the ’siciliana’ that followed. Eschenbach tended to lose the forward motion of the music, though the finale’s growth was finely achieved. Don Juan was more consistent, from an admirably bold start to a sinister conclusion.

What of the star soloist, making her Proms debut? Renee Fleming’s first entry in Exsultate, jubilate suggested an operatic performance. This was not ’authentic’ Mozart of modern fashion, this was creamy-rich and sensuous, consciously more expressive than the self-effacing orchestra, the vocal cadenzas positively indulgent. There were excellent moments in the outer movements, notably Fleming’s pointing of rhythms in staccato passages, likewise in the chamber-organ continuo; the finale, however, lacked spring and snap and ended almost apologetically, without dash and brio. The motet’s highlight was the middle movement, Fleming taking time to display an exemplary purity of tone and expressive pianissimo.

In Four Last Songs soloist and conductor were in perfect harmony for repertoire appropriate to the evening and to the hall. Strauss is, of course, Fleming’s trademark; his orchestration gives conductors a full palette of colours.

From the first note, the Philharmonia’s playing was idiomatic and atmospheric – a hushed opening leading to the richer colours of the voice. ’September’ was again well balanced and concluded with an especially beautiful horn envoi. ’Beim Schlafengehen’ unfolded with perfectly shaped phrasing; both Christopher Warren-Green (the Orchestra’s Concert Master) and Fleming excelled in the concluding section, where the voice echoes the violin solo – a rapt mood which continued into the final song.

Whatever reservations one might have had about the concert’s structure, this was a flawless performance.Perhaps the encore – Strauss’s Cacilie – lost a little in precision what it gained in exuberance.

Return of questionnaire. Are you purist or popularist? I am myself both, and suggest that either would have been pleased with this concert.

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