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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Concert Review: Renée Fleming Melts the Snow

Renée Fleming
Photo by Andrew Eccles © Decca Classics
Tuesday night's recital at Carnegie Hall by soprano Renée Fleming took place as a winter snowfall began on 57th Street. As the white flakes fell, Ms. Fleming took her rapt audience on a tour of Vienna, 100 years ago, with a selection of obscure art songs by Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Korngold, and Richard Strauss.

There is much to be said for the "hothouse" atmosphere of Viennese music before Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School broke the barriers of tonality and ushered in the new sounds of the 20th century. Ms. Fleming clearly relished her choice of programme, although it may have befuddled some who expected Strauss aerobics or Rossini razzle-dazzle. She was also able to use her rarely heard lower register for these songs, providing excitement and new sounds from this famous, familiar singer.

The Schoenberg song that opened the program was a powerful evocation that recalled the troubled married life of English king Henry IV. It was followed by five torrid lieder from the pen of Alexander Zemlinsky--who was not only Schoenberg's teacher, but alsohis brother-in-law. These feverish songs reflect the power and passion of this unappreciated composer, whose works have seen a renaissance in recent decades after being suppressed by Nazi censors.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold is best remembered as the child prodigy who fled the Nazis to become a Hollywood legend as one of the fathers of film music. His lucid, post-Wagnerian style permeates these moving songs. "Sterblied" and "Das Heldegrab am Pruth" are grieving works that focus on the horrors of war and death. Ms. Fleming saved her most moving delivery for "Was du mir bist," a simple, passionate love song that bursts into a decadent, orgasmic flower of sound. It was a wonderful way to end the first half of the evening.

The second half of the program opened with four songs from composer Brad Mehldau. Entitled Songs from the Book of Hours, these are new sacred works that explored man's relationship with God. Ms. Fleming sang these works with agility and finesse, handling the complex melodies and rhythms with expert accompaniment from Mr. Höll. These powerful works of devotion were presented as four movements in quick succession: a decision that enhanced the texts and increased the cumulative impact of the songs.

The formal concert concluded with four early songs by Richard Strauss. "Winterweihe" and "Winterliebe" seemed to celebrate the snow falling out on Seventh Avenue. "Traum durch die Dämmerung" and "Gesang der Apollopriesterin" showed different sides of this great German composer. This last song was one of the first examples of Strauss' neo-classical interest that would lead to operas like Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos. Ms. Fleming lifted her voice, soaring through Strauss' melodic lines and displaying the impressive soprano fireworks that the audience had clearly waited to hear.

She returned to the stage, and treated the audience to four encores. Leonard Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty" and Korngold's "Gluck, das mir verblieb" were bookended by more Strauss songs. The Korngold piece, an aria from the opera Die Tote Stadt was the loveliest moment of the evening. It is rare enough to hear this melodic, memorable aria performed--it is rarer still to hear a singer capable of stretching Korngold's languid, long notes to such stunning, moving effect.

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