Renée Fleming

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Seven Early Songs
Berg orch. Christopher Gordon
An Leukon
Die Kathrin – Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn
Das Wunder der Heliane – Ich ging zu ihm
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61

Renée Fleming (soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

On paper this was an enterprising programme with a substantial helping of Berg and Korngold from Renée Fleming sandwiched between two ‘core’ symphonies that are not too often performed.

All too often Beethoven’s Eighth is treated as a comparatively lightweight work – somewhat Haydnesque – but in the right hands it can generate an unstoppable momentum comparable in force to the Seventh Symphony. Noseda’s reading fell into the former category. Whilst there may be a case for performing the work with reduced strings in some smaller venues, the Royal Albert Hall’s vast space requires more musicians. Though for the most part spruce and dapper, the symphony emerged crucially lacking in weight, especially in the outer movements. The inner movements – the Trio of the Minuet graced by some fine horn playing – fared rather better but even here Beethoven’s gruff humour was short-changed. Despite hyperactivity on the podium Noseda seemed unable to generate any real weight from the strings or spring to the rhythm.

The title of Alban Berg’s “Seven Early Songs” is something of a misnomer. Although composed between 1905 and 1908, Berg only orchestrated them in 1928 and then as much for practical as artistic reasons. At the time he was starting work on “Lulu” and, realising that he needed something to keep his name before the public, Berg alighted on these songs – three of which had been heard in 1907 – from his student days and orchestrated them.

Fleming, verdant in a green gown which would not have been out of place in 1907 Berlin, was at her luxuriant best amongst the trailing tendrils of Berg’s post-adolescent imagination, her soaring soprano heard to full advantage in ‘Die Nachtigall’ and in the wonderfully sensual ‘Liebesode’ (“In the arms of love we fell blissfully asleep. The summer wind eavesdropped at the open window” … you get the post-coital drift!). However Noseda’s accompaniments were frequently too loud, often rendering the words all but inaudible, and his stolid tempo for “An Leukon”, as orchestrated by Christopher Gordon and inserted (almost unnoticed) after the fifth song in Berg’s seven, seemed to miss the its essential tongue-in-cheek message (“Run with Life … Time is fleeting!”).

By contrast, the two Korngold arias were an unqualified success not only because their soaring lyricism was made for a voice such as Renée Fleming’s, but also because Korngold’s scoring for a vast orchestra is more or less tamper-proof. ‘Ich ging zu ihn’ is music of extraordinary late-Romantic lushness and packs quite an erotic charge. Heliane gives herself in quite explicit detail to a condemned man she does not love – “I did it so that his poor eyes might yet see love before they dimmed” – and the moment is blessed with one of those melodies which Korngold seemed able to conjure out of thin air.

Schumann’s Second Symphony received a ragged, under-powered reading, Noseda’s jerky enthusiasm masquerading for the lack of finesse in execution, and this in a work which cries out for finesse. The Adagio was redeemed by some sensitive treatment from winds and horns but its string lines seldom soared. The scherzo’s moto perpetuo lacked any real muscle and its coda ran more or less out of control, whilst the finale glided frenetically by in a generalised blur without any sense of grip.

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