S&H Concert review

PROM 16: Dvorák, Brahms, Mozart, R.Strauss, Renée Fleming (sop), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, RAH, 1 August 2001 (MB)


In every way this Prom was in a class of it's own. Soloist, orchestra and conductor were all in magnificent form helping to make this by far the finest Prom of the current season. The gauntlets have been thrown down, pistols have been drawn and a standard has been set that will be difficult to match.

There can be no doubt that it was the long awaited Prom debut of Renée Fleming which made this concert a sell-out. She did not disappoint in music by Mozart and Strauss - music with which she has become indelibly associated. Exultate, jubilate saw her reduce the scale of her voice - yet how thrilling she was in the andante and allegro, infectious, buoyant and lyrical. However, it was in Strauss' Four Last Songs that she was simply peerless. If there was slight hesitancy in the opening of Frühling she settled down to give a performance of such monumental beauty in the final three songs that comparisons are invidious. Only Jessye Norman in my experience has matched this performance.

She has the complete voice for these songs - and recalls the beauty of sound and unequalled feeling for the words, of her teacher, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Beim Schlafengehen and Im Abendrot were both achingly intense, the dynamics and phrasing as spellbinding as I have ever heard. Pianissimos were fabulous, hovering like a frozen flame, luminous yet unwavering. The voice soared like an eagle, the long breathtaking note on the final word 'leben' in the third song suspended like silken thread. Her voice conveyed feelings of youth, of passion, of freshness - yet there was a sublimated darkness to her tone in the final song which was genuinely profound. The sheer beauty of it all left many people in tears.

What made this performance even more astonishing was the perfect playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Christoph Eschenbach had obviously spent time on the detail - the glowing string sound, the magnificent horns, the picturesque woodwind (the very close of the work had piccolos majestically fluttering their unclipped wings). The orchestra matched their soloist's voice in every way lending this performance a rare incandescence.

Eschenbach himself was a revelation. The very opening work - the overture to Carnival - fizzed like Krug. Taken at a breakneck speed it was exhilarating. Brahms' Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale were each as individual in character as a large family of children. They were mysterious, lyrical and elemental. His performance of Strauss' Don Juan was simply fabulous - strings and brass collided in a kaleidoscope of unrelenting colour, the oboe solo was majestic, horns brash and golden, strings soared angelically. The Philharmonia rewarded Eschenbach with playing that was supercharged - extrovert one moment, introvert the next. He had reportedly told his players to think of their wives or partners when playing it. The result was a seamless deluge of passion. In many ways it was a performance of a lifetime and sets Eschenbach out as a Strauss conductor of unusual insight.

There have been rumours (not least from Seen & Heard's Philadelphia correspondent) that Eschenbach's arrival in Philadelphia in 2003 is being viewed as a tragedy for the orchestra. On the evidence of this evening's concert they need fear nothing. He was often breathtaking, his control of an orchestra (even one as great as the Philharmonia) total.

The whole of this Prom had a palpable sense of expectation that was continually met - and often exceeded. The audience roared and stamped their feet after the Four Last Songs and Fleming reappeared for an encore - Strauss' Cäcilie. It was resplendent. She was visibly moved, blew a kiss to the audience and clasped her hands to her heart. I suspect she will return often. Her audience demands it.

Marc Bridle

NOTE: Rather unusually, this concert is not being given a repeat broadcast during the Prom season. Listeners can hear it on 4 January 2002 on BBC Radio 3.

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