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S & H Recital Review

Marx, Liszt, Strauss, Debussy, Rachmaninov: Renée Fleming, Jean - Yves Thibaudet, Barbican, Sunday January 20th. (M. E.)

So smooth, so sweet, so silv'ry is thy voice
As, could they hear, the damn'd would make no noise,
But listen to thee, walking in thy chamber,
Melting melodious words to lutes of amber.

Herrick's lines might have been written to describe the voice of 'America's Favourite Soprano,' whose Sunday afternoon recital with Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the latest in the Barbican's 'Great Performers' series. The effusive programme notes informed us that 'This unusual recital' would be devoted to inspirations derived from the 'multivalent world of night,' including its 'mysterious odours' and 'sensual intoxications.' Well, that ought to have been enough to set anyone tittering, and if further inspiration were needed, we could soon feast our eyes on M. Thibaudet's slinky suit and Ms Fleming's gown, 'by Gianfranco Ferré,' as we were reminded. I half expected a banner from "Rolex" to scroll down, and perhaps in the interval we might be regaled with 'La Diva Renée' as concocted by 'master chef Daniel." Oh dear - Divadom has been reborn. Never mind - a devoted crowd assembled to hear one of the most beautiful voices of our time in a performance which regularly went from the merely beautiful to the intensely moving; and how often can you say that?

The programme began with a selection of songs by Joseph Marx, once regarded as the logical successor to Wolf but more or less ignored in recent decades, and it was easy to see why both attitudes should have prevailed at different times. Like Wolf, he sets poems of some quality, and delineates their moods in a similarly ambitious fashion, but his music, for all its harmonic inventiveness, is lacking in intellectual quality, and after you have heard one block of soaring voice and rippling piano, you are not desperate to hear too many more. Fleming and Thibaudet wrung every possible drop from the songs, she negotiating the punishing Straussian high notes with seemingly careless ease, and he thundering out the tempestuous piano parts with effortless skill.

The piano was also given three solo pieces, Liszt's Ballade No. 2 and Debussy's "Clair de lune" and "Feux d'artifice," and although Thibaudet played them with grace, technical assurance and melodic flair, I found their inclusion frustrating. I can hear these pieces frequently in London, played by pianists equal to Thibaudet, but it is only rarely that I have the chance to hear Fleming in recital. I found myself only half listening to the piano, and wishing that instead we were hearing her sing some of the Schubert which had been promised in the advertising.

However, much could be forgiven for her singing of the four Strauss songs which closed the first half of the recital. These were not textbook-perfect performances; at times, the piano threatened to swamp the voice, and there were one or two moments of less than ideal singing, notably in the soured final "meine" in "Ruhe, meine Seele" and the regrettable aspirates during the last lines of "Cäcilie," but these paled into insignificance when compared to the rest. This is simply the most glorious, heart - rendingly lovely soprano voice I have ever heard, and it is one of only three voices capable of sending shivers of joy right through me. Every phrase here gave the most intense musical pleasure, but "Leise Lieder" and "Cäcilie" were glorious. The former was sung in an enraptured mezza-voce, the tone at times so slender and so intimate that you felt you were the only recipient of these confidences, and the final phrase "Meine Seele ew'ge Sehnsucht trank" achieved pure perfection in the blending of voice and piano in one shimmering thread of golden sound. "Cäcilie" is of course a Fleming calling card, and how she revels in it, with those highly romantic sentiments and sensuous phrases; ninety seconds of rapture, followed of course by tumultuous applause.

Debussy's "Chansons de Bilitis" began the recital's second half, in a performance of winning individuality. Fleming is not Maggie Teyte, and wisely does not try to be, and she brought her own style to these challenging pieces. Her French is not up to the standard of her German, and there were moments of cloudy diction, but overall the singing was delicate and evocative. Fleming's take on these songs will not delight everyone; I felt she was a little too much on the coquettish side in "La flûte de Pan," and I also had doubts about "La chevelure." Debussy wrote the instruction "Très expressif et passionément concentré" on the score of the latter, and although the singing here was certainly expressive, I felt that some of the necessary intense seriousness was missing. "Le tombeau des naïades" was very beautifully sung, with those arching phrases wonderfully handled.

The Rachmaninov set which closed the recital was far more successful. Fleming may not be a native Russian speaker as Olga Borodina is, yet I felt that her interpretation of these songs was more convincing and certainly far more moving. Where Borodina gave us the same warm, fruity, maternal tones whether she was singing of passionate love or delicate Spring, Fleming characterised these pieces with some distinction, so that "In the silence of mysterious night" was ideally lush and languorous, and "How beautiful it is here" perfectly evoked the shimmering landscape and the lover's dream. "Do not sing, my beauty" is perhaps the most moving of these songs, and Fleming gave Pushkin's achingly nostalgic lines just the right sense of melancholy and longing, especially in the repeat of "Druguyu zhizn i bereg dalny" (Of another life and a distant shore.) Thibaudet's accompaniment was beautifully shaded.

I could have done without the introduction to the first encore, "Marietta's Lied" - 'This is mah own personal tribute to the lovely people of New York on September 11th.' Euch.. nevertheless, the singing here was the most glorious of the recital, causing tears to spring to my eyes at "Hoffnung schwingt ich himmelwarts," (Hope itself soars heavenward) and I remained in a state of seeing two of her throughout the song. You either love Korngold, or you don't, and I do, so hearing this was a real joy, sung with such soaring beauty of tone and such sincerity in the phrasing of the lines. Hardly a dry eye in the house after "glaub, es gibt ein Auferstehn" (believe, there is an afterlife.)

Rachmaninov's "Spring Waters" followed, in a sensitive and expressive performance, and then in complete contrast, "I Want Magic" delighted most of the audience. The final encore was "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got Swing,)" which Renee sure don't have herself - I can't say who has, Ella Fitzgerald probably, but what I do know is that such material is an inappropriate use of this lustrous voice. There's plenty of wonderful Schubert, Ms Fleming - and a lot of it would even have helped you stay with your "Night" theme. And yet - those lines of Herrick's still come to mind.

Melanie Eskenazi

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