In Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Review – Vienna, The Window To Modernity (The Barbican, Sunday 9 December 2012)

Renée Fleming (Soprano)
Maciej Pikulski (Piano)

Wolf – Goethe Lieder
Mahler – Rückert Lieder
Schoenberg – Ewartung Op. 2 No.1; Jane Grey, Op. 12 No. 1
Zemlinsky – Fünf lieder auf Texte von Richard Dehmel
Korngold – Selected lieder & Walzer aus Wien, Frag mich aft

Richard Strauss – Zueignung
Delibes – Les filles de Cadix
Korngold – Marietta’s lied

Concentrating on the period between 1888 and 1933, Renée Fleming’s recital underlined how the tectonic plates of harmony and structure that had underpinned music for literally centuries were slowly disintegrating.

The first half was devoted to the music of Wolf and Mahler and I quite fancied that her outfit, with its muted tartan pattern was reminiscent in some way of the final years of that century.

Ms Fleming is an accomplished recitalist and all-round performer. She draws the listener in not only with the beauty of her voice but also with the depth of her interpretation.

However at the Barbican it took longer than expected. Despite professing to a cold there was no drop in the quality or intensity of her singing, rather – I feel – it was her choice of opening lieder.

I am not convinced that her voice is suited to Wolf’s Goethe lieder. Without a doubt they were performed well – technically to say the least – but the never felt fully invested in. I did wonder, in fact, had she performed his Mörike Lieder would they, with their dark toned hues, been more successful as Anakreons Grab – with its Mörike leanings – was the most successful of the quintet.

However she was definitely on top form for Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. I hope that at some point soon Ms Fleming captures these songs on disc. Her voice, as I have mentioned before, has developed a richer, more burnished hue, combined with her continued ability to spin the most liquid vocal line, that are so important for these songs. The opening song, with its almost limpid line, Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft! floated out across the audience, beautifully accompanied by Pikulski. Similarly the control she displayed in Liebst do um Schönheit, modulating her voice through the dynamics, was breathtaking. Um Mitternacht showed off Ms Fleming’s polished lower range as she carefully placed each and every word of the text and in sharp relief to the sparkling, almost deliberately brittle jauntiness of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder.

But the preceding four songs were but a warm up. Ich bin der Welt adhanden gekommen was a coup in terms of a performance that had everything in terms of the highest level musicianship, interpretation and mesmerising singing. A song of resignation, never have the final two lines sounded so beautifully poignant.

A recording please.

Ms Fleming returned for the second half and delivered a theatrical coup even before she began to sing. Wrapped head to toe in shimmering gold – a quality and colour that could easily be used to describe her own voice – she was a literal embodiment of a Gustav Klimt character. And her reference to the artist was not lost on the audience.

Indeed, was Ms Fleming’s greater engagement with the audience in the second half a realisation that perhaps she had not enraptured them sufficiently before the interval? If so, it was a masterstroke. I recently read in an interview with Opera News how Susan Graham also talks to her audience. I think it’s a great advantage to engage the audience in a lieder recital and I see that Mesdames Graham and Fleming are “recitaling” together which should make for a chatty evening.

The composers of the second half – Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Korngold – inhabited a Vienna on the edge of the tonality and Ms Fleming delivered the selection from each composer not only with great poise but again an underlying technical precision and burnished tone that was remarkable.

Indeed it is her touchstone relationship with the lieder of Richard Strauss that informed the brilliance of her performances.

The rarely performed Jane Grey by Schoenberg for example was imbued with great drama. It was almost as if Ms Fleming could see the execution of this hapless young girl before her very eyes.

Similarly she captured the symbolism of Dehmel’s verse and the music it inspired from Zemlinsky beautifully. The abrupt ending of Auf see never ceases to catch my breath.

While it was clear that Korngold’s Was die mir bist? – written for his mother – was the clear favourite for Ms Fleming, personally it was Sterbelied which was my favourite in this final selection. Again, Ms Fleming has over the years become more than adept at colouring individual words that is so perfectly suited to the lieder of this period.

The recital proper ended with Walzer am Wien by Korngold – a fitting glittering, skittering end piece to a brilliant recital.

However, no Fleming recital would be complete with a selection of encores that didn’t include Richard Strauss. At the Barbican she gave us a beautifully rendered, impassioned Zueignung. This was followed – by her own admission – with a piece she had never performed before, Delibes’ Les filles de Cadix. Despite a humorous fluff halfway through it more than demonstrated that Ms Fleming can do vocal fizz with the best of them.

But she ended the evening with a masterful performance of Marietta’s lied. Again her voice has developed a richer, bronzed toned that now makes her performance of this simply magical.

Throughout the recital she was intuitively and sensitively accompanied by Maciej Pikulski. He matched every single mood she sought to convey with elegant and intelligent playing.

I hope it is a recital relationship that continues.

So, all in all a successful evening. Despite a somewhat cool start, Ms Fleming delivered an exceptional evening of lieder that are clearly close to her own heart that resulted in a well-deserved ovation.

An evening as vocally golden as her gown.


  1. […] most memorably and most recently was Ms Fleming’s performance at the Barbican. In a carefully constructed recital, she took the audience on the most magnificent journey through […]

  2. […] here, sung by Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney, it is […]

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