Fleming soars in Strauss songs

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Is there a finer wedding of voice to composer  today than Renee Fleming to Richard Strauss? The opulence, radiant tone, and strain of sadness in Fleming’s timbre are tailor-made for the German composer’s long line and aching nostalgia.

 No composer bid a more refined or eloquent farewell to his art as Strauss did with his Vier letze lieder. And, as with every lyric soprano, the Four Last Songs have long been a key part of Fleming’s concert arsenal. She recorded the cycle thirteen years ago with Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony Orchestra (BMG/RCA) a performance that holds up well.

 But Fleming’s new Decca disc of Strauss’s cycle puts the previous CD in the shade. Tempos are markedly faster than previously—like the composer himself, conductor Christian Thielemann is no dawdler in this repertoire. But the music never seems rushed, and Fleming’s greater experience in these settings results in a more natural, less calculated performance, giving us one of her most successful recordings.

  Her voice is now richer with a darker color, soaring in Fruhling, with Thielemann and the Munich orchestra providing sumptuous textures. September has one brief episode of the overemphatic pronunciation Fleming can fall prey to, but such is the tonal beauty that it seems churlish to kvetch, particularly with the moving expression of the final world-weary lines.  Beim Schlafengehen is beautifully sung, violin solo on the same level, with a luxuriant, heart-catching swell on Und die Seele, and the cycle is rounded off with an affecting Im Abendrot. Thielemann, the leading Strauss conductor of our time, and the Bavarian musicians lend equally rich and glowing support.  

 The Strauss couplings are on an equally high level. Ariadne’s extended monologue is vividly characterized with emotional intensity and expressive detailing, making one wish to hear Fleming captured in the complete role. The four additional songs are glorious, with a moving, account of the infrequently heard Verfuhrung, and a rapturous Zueignung, the disc closing with a from-the-guts rendition of Zweite Brautnacht from Die agyptische Helena.

 Fleming’s glam persona and fame can sometimes obscure what an extraordinary artist she is, and this magnificent Strauss disc is not only one of her finest achievements but one of the great vocal discs released in recent years.

Posted in CD review, CD/DVD

One Response to “Fleming soars in Strauss songs”

  1. Posted Dec 15, 2008 at 9:30 am by Ed Campbell

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate your review of Sunday’s (for us) New World concert. Actually my wife an I have been appreciating your reviews all the way back to your Sun-Sentinel days.

    On to Fleming. This is the first time I’ve read a review of a CD by you. For me you couldn’t have picked a better subject. I have long felt that no one wrote for the female voice like Strauss — not even Verdi or Wagner. I have long loved Four Last Songs. And, of course, Rene Fleming (Renata Flambe to Prarie Home Companion fans) has been a favorite for at least a decade. I will buy it immediately and it will reside next to my Schwartzkoff CD.

    Will you be reviewing any of the Met operas given in local theaters in high Def? I can’t wait to hear her Thais.

    Thank again

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Sun Nov 30, 2008
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