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'She is most compelling in the German literature ...'

A Renée Fleming and Jean-Yves Thibaudet recital -


If anything brought together the worlds of music and literature at the turn of the 20th century, and enchanted the world in the process, it was the French chanson. Unlike its counterpart, the German lied, or the operatically inspired Russian piesnya, the chanson was a systole of the symbolist movement, to whit, an emblem of what lurked essentially behind illusion and appearance. This is music that concerned itself with moods, metaphors, dreams and symbols. No doubt the cultivation of the chanson by Debussy, Ravel, Bordes and especially Fauré held special interest for Strauss, though his songs follow more loosely the German tradition that evolved from the lieder of Schubert and especially Wolf. Unlike the chanson, the romantic lied was a conduit for the conveyance of extreme psychological states, exalted sentiments, and the evocation of bucolic landscapes.

Night Songs (c) 2001 Decca Records

Renée Fleming brings her stellar, gorgeous instrument to each of these styles. What a pity then, that she sometimes relies on her razor sharp technique and perfect intonation to carry her through music that demands far greater subtlety than she demonstrates here. She is most compelling in the German literature; indeed, her survey of 5 songs of Strauss and the Wolf-inspired lieder of Joseph Marx (1882-1964) [listen -- track 12, Selige Nacht, 0:00 -- 1:15] is often exemplary. Her German diction is flawless and her vocal ardency illuminates rather than muddies the compositional waters. What's more, she commands an uncanny grasp of their curvaceous, dovetailing lines and hairpin changes of registration. Rarely have Strauss's Cäcilie [listen -- track 18, 0:00-0:58] or Schlechtes Wetter, for example, been more scintillating and persuasively delivered. To the Marx songs, the tessitura of which is ideally suited to her edgy soprano, she brings incomparable authority and ravishing vocalism. It's not at all difficult to hear in her singing the influence, and occasionally even the voice of her teacher, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who few would dispute remains among the greatest interpreters of Strauss and the German lied. But she has yet to master Schwarzkopf's virtually limitless range of nuance, especially in the context of pianissimo.

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Copyright © 16 June 2001 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA






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