Vienna: the window to modernity

Selecting five composers “whose tracks were closely linked” —
personally, musically and influentially — Fleming began with Hugo Wolf and
Gustav Mahler, both born in 1860 and students of Robert Fuchs at the Vienna
Academy of Music, but whose music developed in divergent ways.

Wolf’s Goethe Lieder began quite conservatively, though relaxed
and discursive in delivery. Although a little subdued and restrained, Fleming
conjured a pastoral sweetness in ‘Fr¸hlings ¸bers Jahr’ (‘Spring all
year round’) and ‘Gleich und gleich’ (‘Like to like’). Her trademark
generous legato helped to establish an easy ambience, strolling through meadows
where ‘snow-white snowdrop bells are swaying’ and ‘crocuses unfold their
intense glow’; yet while the elision of consonants may have aided the
luxurious tone and silky sinuousness, occasionally the trademark
portamenti took one liberty too many.

Pianist Maciej Pikulski’s understated accompaniment — delicate,
suggestive, airy — was surprisingly effective in complementing the rhythmic
freedom and tonal blossoming of the voice; this was particularly noticeable in
‘Die Bekehrte’ (‘The repentant shepherdess’), where Pikulski’s
unassuming yet sensitive traceries contributed much to the mood of modest
ruefulness. In ‘Anakreons Grab’ (‘Anacreaon’s grave’) the performers
communicated an affecting meditative tranquillity.

Mahler’s R¸ckert-Lieder followed. In these songs we see the
Mahler who looks within himself for answers to twentieth-century crises —
personal, musical, social and political; and Fleming’s approach – more
concerned for the overall musical line than in small nuances of text — is
well-suited to music which offers a full and intense expression of personality.
Growing from the delicate whisperings of ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!’
(‘I breathed a gentle scent’), Fleming gradually extended her range of
colour; in ‘Mitternacht’ she vividly invested the repetitions of the title
with deeply evocative hues. Voice and piano, both remarkably restrained,
conversed intimately in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost
to the world’), and produced a disquieting ‘peace’ in the final verse,
the sound palely dissolving with the line ‘Und ruh’ in einem stillen
Gebiet!’ (‘And I rest in a quiet realm’).

I had not been convinced during the Wolf and Mahler that the expanse of the
Barbican Hall, even when bathed in a glossy pink glow, was truly the most
appropriate venue for these intimate lieder. However, in the second half of the
recital, which began with Schoenberg and moved on to Zemlinsky and Korngold,
the spaciousness was filled with Fleming’s blooming gleam, the size of the
venue granting her the amplitude and resonance required to commit fully to the
music’s grandiose emotional outbursts.

Fleming offered helpful introductions to the sometimes challenging music
offered, engaging her audience directly, although Schoenberg’s
Erwartung, Op.2 No.1 (not to be confused with the later melodrama of
the same title), a setting of a Richard Dehmel poem describing the sexual
anticipation of two lovers, and Jane Grey Op.12, an ardent ballad
telling of the fate of the young woman who ruled England for just nine days in
1553, needed no ‘justification’. This is music of pained intensity, and
Fleming conveyed the narratives directly and with emotional freedom. Pikulski
contributed considerably to the melancholic poise which tempered the animation
of the emotional tales.

Zemlinsky’s F¸nf Lieder auf Texte von Richard Dehmel are more
enigmatic, but Fleming’s legato sheen did much to bring coherence to these
ambiguous fragments. Bitterly chromatic and characterised by unexpected
harmonic twists, these songs, unpublished in the composer’s lifetime, seem
determined to retain their secrets; they may have been prompted by
Zemlinsky’s disquiet at the affair between his sister Mathilde, who was
married to Schoenberg, and the painter Richard Gerstl, who later committed
suicide when Mathilde returned to her husband in 1908. Fleming’s confident,
accurate rendering offered a route to understanding while never destroying
their mystery.

Fleming concluded her Viennese sojourn with the music Erich Korngold. The
broadly elegiac chromaticisms of ‘Sterbelied’, a setting of Christina
Rossetti’s ‘When I am Dead’ — but, why did the programme present a
rather lifeless re-translation of the German version of the original, rather
than Rossetti’s original poem? — blossomed into the spacious lines of
‘Was du mir bist?’ (‘What are you to me?’), where Fleming’s
expansiveness at the top was finally indulged in astonishing blooms of
wonderful sound, a paradox of weight and ethereality. Here, Fleming
demonstrated how she can release the fullness of her voice at the moment when
the text demands but, like an emotional ambush, still catch us unawares.
Concluding the Korngold sequence, the composer’s take on Johann Strauss
II’s waltz, ‘Frag mich off’ (‘I often wonder’), allowed Fleming to
indulge her kitschier, melodramatic instincts.

The omission of Fleming’s beloved Richard Strauss was remedied in the
first of three encores, ‘Zueignung’, which was effortlessly gleaming and
luminous. Delibes’ ‘Les Filles de Cadix’ was, Fleming declared, designed
as a sorbet to refresh the palette after “too much sachertorte”. The trills
were perhaps less tight and tremulous than of old, but the elevated vocalism
just as winning: embarking upon the wrong verse text, Fleming offered a
nonchalant shrug, set off again and won a round of applause! Korngold’s
‘Mariettas lied’ from Die tote Stadt signed off a consummate
display of musical artistry and eloquent communication. Pikulski’s playing in
the closing bars was exquisitely graceful and charmingly tender.

So much for the music; glorious as it was, at times it was at risk of being
over-shadowed by ‘The Diva’. The avidly warm welcoming reception, the
statuesque frocks — an extravagant golden silk confection garnered the
pseudo-apology, ‘I wanted you to get the Klimt connection’ — the
insouciant banter and the rapturous standing ovation all indicated that a
‘star’ had alighted.

But, she deserved the adulation and the rapturous standing ovation: it was
clear that she could ask her voice to do whatever she willed, confident that
the result would be technically masterful yet seem effortlessly articulated.

Just one tiny, humble, suggestion: if your feet can’t be seen beneath the
taffeta fanfares, there’s no point crippling yourself in tottering,
un-walkable Louboutins — when you sing this gloriously, flat pumps will

Claire Seymour

here for the programme and other information relating to this recital

image_description=RenÈe Fleming [Photo by Andrew Eccles courtesy of Decca]
product_title=Vienna: the window to modernity
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: RenÈe Fleming [Photo by Andrew Eccles courtesy of Decca]