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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Concert Review: The No-Bell Prize

The MET Orchestra goes all-Strauss at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The ever-glamorous Renée Fleming sang Strauss Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Andrew Eccles for Decca/Universal Music Group.
The starry career of soprano Renée Fleming has been associated for the past two decades with the operas of Richard Strauss, and specifically roles like the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, the title role in Arabella and the Countess Madeleine in Capriccio, all more or less a fit for her aristocratic stage presence and charm.

On Sunday afternoon, a packed Carnegie Hall heard Ms. Fleming give an all-Strauss recital, with the Four Last Songs and a more questionable selection of lieder from different periods in that composer's long career. The songs were flanked by two early Strauss tone poems, Don Juan and Also Sprach Zarathustra, with the entire concert conducted by David Robertson.

The concert opened with a glittering performance of Don Juan, the work that launched Strauss' career with a rush of fast-rising strings and a stab of brass. Mr. Robertson parried and thrust on the podium, drawing the main themes out in bold strokes and steering the big orchestra with an expert hand. The lush, romantic music of the love-scenes had the appropriate ironic harmonies underneath and the final dead stop, with hollow chords indicating the hero's death was landed with precision and grace.

The Four Last Songs are Strauss masterpieces, settings that were originally created for the voice of Kirsten Flagstad. Ms. Fleming's instrument is nowhere near the volume and caliber of that Norwegian singer. No, hers is a lighter instrument, but one that smoothly and gently navigates the emotional peaks and nostaglic valleys of these songs. Mr. Robertson gave her expert, slowish accompaniment, her voice rising to its upper register on a swelling tide of strings and brass.

If the Four Last Songs are a set, then the five (six with an encore) orchestrated lieder that made up the second half of Ms. Fleming's program were definitely more of a grab-bag. "Meinem Kinde" was accompanied by just a string quartet, a gentle cradle-melody. "Liebeshymnus" allowed Strauss to indulge his skill with the entire orchestra. And "Das Bächlein", written during Strauss' period of working hand-in-glove with the Nazi regime as Hitler's Reichskammermusikdirektor and dedicated to Josef Goebbels deserves (along with a few other works from that period) to be forgotten. It's a piece of insipid wrack.

Happily, this little ditty was followed by "Ruhe, mein Seele" which functioned as a kind of atonement for the sins of the previous song, given a majestic orchestration that was one of the last efforts to flow from Strauss' pen. The set ended with "Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland", a questionable setting of the Biblical story of the Magi that had Strauss again in that uncomfortable idiom of writing for the ears of children. The encore was the ever-popular Strauss song ""Cäcilie."

The concert ended with a sonorous Zarathustra with one oddity. In the "Nachtwandlerlied" that brings the work to its climax, the deep orchestral bell that tolls the hour to such imposing effect was simply missing. Did the Met decide not to spend money on the stagehands necessary to move this heavy beast from Lincoln Center to Carnegie Hall? Either way, the effect made the big finish of this work seem anti-climactic, as the unresolved B-C chords in the coda were stripped of any sense of meaning. 

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