Archive for December 16th, 2011|Daily archive page

Time Stood Still.

In Classical Music, Review, Richard Strauss on December 16, 2011 at 11:06 am

Review – Renée Fleming, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach

Renée Fleming is one of today’s leading interpreters of Richard Strauss – if not the leading exponent of his music. Of course I may be biased as she is one of the few sopranos that I will readily travel abroad to see in performance, but there is no denying that her interpretations of some of his greatest characters are second-to-none. Here I refer to her Marshallin that I have seen more than once and her Countess in Capriccio for example.

Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder are at the pinnacle of any soprano’s repertory and Ms Fleming herself has recorded them twice superlatively, first in 1996 with Christoph Eschenbach and then again in 2006 with Christian Thielemann.

There is no denying that these four songs are a perfect match for Ms Fleming’s incredible voice and innate sense of musicianship. Over the years she has a developed the closest performance relationship with each of the individual songs as well as the set as a whole.

And nothing was clearer than in her performance of these songs at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. There was almost a sense of reunion considering that Eschenbach also conducted Ms Fleming on her Strauss Heroines disc – another perfect recital.

However, before Ms Fleming took to the stage, the concert started with the overture to Wagner’s Tannhauser. Eschenbach is a thoughtful conductor and clearly is a ‘devil-in-the-detail’ man. He drew an almost ‘Germanic’ sound from the orchestra as the opening bars unfolded, the woodwind beautiful pointed and the cellos were breathtaking in the richness of their opening entry. The ensuing allegro, taken at a speed more resolute than Bacchanalian was, nonetheless, a pretty thrilling experience with conductor pulling out orchestra detail that is often missed. Brass were suitably weighty but never threatened to drown out their colleagues.

However nothing could have prepared me – or the audience – for what came next. I admit that I had listened to Ms Fleming and Eschenbach’s 1996 recording of the Strauss earlier in the day, and was reminded of the slower than expected tempi adopted. Yet their performance hadn’t suffered any for those slower speeds and gave Ms Fleming the opportunity to dwell lovingly on Strauss’ vocal line, creating a particular intensity

At the Royal Festival Hall, Fruhling opened at a slightly faster pace than in their recording but Eschenbach highlighted the exquisite orchestral detail that is so often missing in other performances. Ms Fleming’s burnished and bronzed tone sailed through in the vocal line, rising effortlessly above the orchestra, and diction perfect. Her entry at Du kennst mich wieder was a wonderful lesson in control.

From September and the subsequent songs however, Eschenbach slowed the tempi down considerably – perhaps even slower than their original recording. The effect was amazing. It concentrated the attention of the audience completely. Indeed, such was there concentration that I almost felt that many didn’t even breathe during the songs themselves which would have accounted for an almost excessive barrage of coughing in between.

The slow tempi proved no obstacle for Ms Fleming. Indeed for her it seemed an opportunity to revel in, and almost caress, Strauss’ expansive vocal lines and pay particular attention to the text, investing each individual word with significance. In complete control of her voice, she coloured individual phrases, displayed great dynamic control.

In some way, Ms Fleming and Eschenbach created an incredibly intimate performance, almost as if she wasn’t singing to the audience as a whole but to each and everyone one personally.

In Beim Schlafengehen, never have I heard the orchestral texture at Hände laβt von allem Tun drive home the literal sense of the words as Eschenbach eased back even more on the tempo momentarily. Additionally I would more normally want a greater sense of crescendo at Und die Seele unbewatcht, yet the sense of intimacy already created by soprano and orchestra made the restraint shown all the more thrilling. As she drew the song to its final close, she once again displayed absolute control of the vocal line, making each closing phrase an expansive breath. Mesmerising.

Despite a slightly muffled start to Im Abendrot, the final song was truly valedictorian as the soprano placed each word carefully before the audience, wrapped as ever in her wonderfully rich tone. As in the earlier three songs, Eschenbach never permitted the orchestra to play over the voice, again adding to that sense of real intimacy. The flute birdsong, often played intrusively against the soprano, was delicately placed and played throughout.

And indeed as Ms Fleming moved towards the final line of the poem Eschenbach pushed the tempo even slower. Suddenly time seemed to literally stop as she intoned Ist dies etwa der Tod?. Indeed it felt as if Eschenbach and Fleming were literally leading us through the final moments of the narrator, his/her heartbeat gradually slowing from the opening bars of Fruhling as death approached.

As her final note died away, Eschenbach led the orchestra to the final bars and let the sound die away naturally. Indeed while the London Philharmonic seemed to struggle in following Eschenbach on occasion in the songs, the rapt ending they delivered more than made up for any previous inconsistency.

Renée Fleming and Christoph Eschenbach delivered a mesmerising performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Clearly they share a longstanding and deeply felt relationship with the songs over many years. As I have said in a previous post, there seem to be two camps when considering performances of these songs – the ‘grand gesture’ versus the more intimate performance. This was clearly in the second category Personally, the focus and concentration, combined with a real sense of musicianship and involvement in the songs took the whole experience to a deeper level.

Ms Fleming returned to the stage – to rapturous applause – for a single encore – Strauss’ Waldseligkeit. This is a darkly-hued work, emerging from an orchestral denseness that was perfectly captured by Eschenbach and the orchestra. Ms Fleming brightly rose above the orchestra, negotiating the awkward – and unexpected – harmonic shifts with ease and grace and once again demonstrating her Straussian credentials.

In the second half Eschenbach led the London Philharmonic through Beethoven’s Seventh symphony. I say ‘led’ as, still deeply in awe of Chailly’s Beethoven with the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig, while the symphony under Eschenbach was well played, it was the notes that were well played rather than interpreted. However it was still a credible performance and brought the evening to a strong and enjoyable end.

Yet the evening belong – inevitably – to Renée Fleming and her performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Indeed I always judge a good evening by my choice of music as I head home. If the concert is anything but excellent, chances are that I will select something different. If the performance was exceptional then I am drawn to listen to the same piece.

On this occasion? Ms Fleming’s 1996 recording of the View Letzte Lieder conducted by Maestro Eschenbach.


Related Blogs:
1. Follow The Lieder – Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder


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