Renée Fleming – Un moment exquis

In Classical Music, Review on June 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Review – Poèmes. Ravel – Shéhérazade; Messiaen – Poèmes pour Mi; Dutilleaux – Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou & Le Temps l’Horloge.
Renée Fleming, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France & Alan Gilbert; Orchestre National de France & Seiji Ozawa

I purchased this disc on the day it came out some time ago but for reasons of work, travel and repeated listening I haven’t had a chance to commit my thoughts to ‘byte and metadata’. But following Ms Fleming’s brilliant performance in the title role of in Arabella in Paris I resolved to write about this marvellous disc.

For most people including myself Renée Fleming is more usually associated with the music of Richard Strauss – her recent debut as the Prima Donna and heroine of the title in Baden Baden’s recent and excellent production of Ariadne auf Naxos for example – and Mozart as well as, but a lesser extent, the bel canto composers. Even her foray into cover versions of pop songs was an interesting and not-unsuccessful venture.

A self-confessed Francophile, her latest disc finds her exploring the music of French composers Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux. However Ms Fleming has been performing the music on this disc for some time in the case of Dutilleaux’s Le Temps Horloge and more recently for Ravel’s piece.

Continued listening to this disc either in part or from beginning to end simply underlines for me the depth and integrity of Ms Fleming’s musicianship as well as her ability to communicate the even through what some might find the toughest listens.

Singing in French can sometimes cruelly expose a singer’s diction yet throughout the recital the language holds no challenges for Fleming. Her clear diction is combined with pinpoint accuracy in placing even the trickiest consonants.

And in committing her performances to disc for the first time she brings the inevitable comparison with Regine Crespin for Shéhérazade and Pollet for Poèmes pour Mi.

But while these two singular performances are excellent – and to the latter I would add Anne Schwanewilms’ performance of the Poèmes – personally I believe that Ms Fleming more convincingly captures the aura – almost a voluptuousness of sound without sacrificing the need for clarity – of these individual pieces more convincingly, aided and abetted throughout by her orchestral accompanists and warmer acoustics.

As I’ve remarked in previous blogs Renée Fleming’s voice has evolved and developed in recent years. Her last recording of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder with Thielemann saw a more burnished, richer tone which was even more in evidence when she performed this quartet of songs more recently in London under Eschenbach. And this more burnished tone does not come at the sacrifice of anything else in her vocal armoury. Her technique remains formidable with no loss in her ability to spin great, expansive legato lines underpinned with fine diction.

And all these elements of her musicianship come to the fore in these four song cycles. Indeed her credentials in Strauss create the very foundations on which this disc is built as she finds a lyricism in this music that people might not associate with these composers, bar Ravel of course.

From the shimmering opening of the opening song in Ravel’s Shéhérazade Fleming’s intention is clear. Her evocation of Asie – listen to her handling of the third repetition – the orchestral skittering and her clear declamation set the mood immediately.

The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Alan Gilbert provide the lush accompaniment that brings Fleming’s interpretation to life as singer and orchestra ebb and flow through Ravel’s masterpiece. Alert to the rhythms that Ravel splices to the sonorous harmonies – quite Debussy-esque in places – as well as the almost percussive wordplay in the text itself, the interplay between Fleming and the instrumentalists is nothing short of magical and creates the sense of wonder that underpins the entire cycle. The sense of momentum through ‘Je voudrais voir’ from both Fleming and the orchestra to the resultant climax is thrilling and perfectly balanced with the closing bars and the final violin solo.

In La Flûte Enchantée, Fleming voice and the flute obbligato seamlessy and sensually entwine and play above Ravel’s most delicate and shimmering orchestration.

In the final song, L’Indifférent, Ravel focuses his luxuriant sound world around sonorous pallet imbued with woodwind colour. The entire song leaves the vocal line perilously exposed above the most delicate orchestration yet Ms Fleming displays complete mastery of her technique and understanding of how to inflect the vocal line to produce quite possibly the most beautiful track of the disc.

In short Fleming’s performance of Shéhérazade is nothing short of a music-based opiate.

Written in 1936, Messiaen’s Poèmes Pour Mi – where Mi was his affectionate pet-name for his wife, has always struck me as having more than a passing nod to the influence of jazz with its moment of quasi vocal improvisation in sharp relief to the more precise and percussive accompaniment. This is of course ironic since the composer apparently detested the genre.

The nine-song cycle not only requires a soprano with absolute vocal authority and ability to negotiate both music and words, but a conductor and orchestra that can create Messiaen’s unique sound world. And this is evident from the opening song in Poèmes, Action De Grâces. Listen to the closing bars as Fleming intones Alleluia above flute and shimmering strings for example, or the beautiful placement of words and sound at the beginning of Paysage, where the strings skitter away leading to warm and fluid wind playing and holds true to the final song Prière Exaucée. In this last song in the cycle, the juxtaposition of the percussive brass alternating with the tightly knit ensemble playing between singer, flute and strings before Fleming revels with the orchestra in the rush of orchestral colour and rhythm as the cycle closes is ravishing. Throughout Alan Gilbert’s conducting and real sense of colour is absolute and thrilling and together with the players matches Ms Fleming’s emotional intensity in each and every song.

Dutilleaux is only known to me through his Oboe Sonata which I enjoyed learning at university. His musical language is more influenced by Stravinsky but with repeated listening I heard increasing similarities with Messiaen’s Poèmes.

His Deux Sonnets De Jean Cassou create contrasting sound and rhythmic worlds. The first song with its insistent rhythms and sense of urgency – the opening brass reminding me somewhat of Debussy’s Le Mer – is finely balanced with the dreamy, almost soporific second Sonnet where once again Fleming’s technique and complete vocal control negotiates the broad legato phrases spun by Dutilleaux with ease.

The five movement Le Temps L’Horloge – taken from a concert performance – was written for Renée Fleming with the composer going on the record to say that he was inspired by her voice “voice’s character” and “power of expression” and again he plays with the sound world, as well as a harpsichord in the opening song I am pretty sure that the third, Le Dernier Poème, featured an accordion. I have to admit I did not enjoy this song cycle as much as Dutilleaux’s previous work or the other works on the disc. While the cycle is clearly written around Ms Fleming at the end I did wish for a greater sense of contrast between the individual songs. However, the final song, Envirez-Vous stands out. By the cycle is performed brilliantly and the audience show their appreciation at the end.

All in all, Poèmes is an exquisite and interesting recital disc. Renée Fleming, both conductors and the orchestras create a heady musical atmosphere that with repeatedly listening reveals a little more within the music.

L’achetez immédiatement.

  1. […] commercialisation of classical music within reason. For the most part the CD covers of the likes of Renée Fleming, Danielle de Niese and even Gergiev recognise the power of marketing but never negate the talent […]

  2. […] as having numerous of his recordings, the last time I saw Christoph Eschenbach was in London with Renée Fleming in a memorable performance of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder. As with Ms Stutzmann, the maestro […]

  3. […] disc of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux is one that I appreciate more each and every time I listen to it. There is a depth and integrity to […]

  4. […] Benjamin studied with Olivier Messiaen and his influence is keenly felt as the basis of the timbre and sound world that Benjamin creates. […]

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