Renée Fleming - Kudos


Ariama | March 05, 2012
by Craig Zeichner

In the liner notes to Poèmes, a collection of French song cycles, soprano Renée Fleming speaks of the “sheer sensual joy” of singing in French. Sensuality is certainly in the air when Maurice Ravel’s sultry Shéhérazade and Olivier Messiaen’s ecstatic Poèmes pour mi are on the program. But no less daring are Henri Dutilleux’s Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou and La Temps l’horloge (Time and the Clock), a work written for Fleming in 2009. Alan Gilbert conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in the Ravel, Messiaen and Deux Sonnets, while Seiji Ozawa conducts the Orchestre National de France  in a live recording of the world premiere of La Temps l’horloge.

Fleming smolders in Ravel’s Shéhérazade. From a purely vocal standpoint she has it all: tonal richness, flexibility and commanding strength in all registers. The climactic lines of Asie (Asia) where she sings “Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien de haine” (I would like to see deaths from love or else hate) skyrockets over the orchestra. Fleming the fine actress infuses every lyric with drama, making this is one of the most intoxicating performances on record.

Kudos to the person who thought of adding Messiaen and Dutilleux to the album (instead of making the predictable choice of Debussy or Chausson songs). Messiaen’s Poèmes pour mi (in my opinion one of the most unfairly neglected song cycles ever written) rekindles the Fleming-Gilbert fire that marked their first performance of the piece (at his inaugural concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic). Fleming stands up to the most rigorous challenges of Messiaen’s sometimes all-engulfing orchestration and sings with heroic strength in the vigorous “Épouvante” (Terrors) and “Les Deux Guerriers” (Two warriors). Of course she’s right at home in the score’s more languorous moments like “L’Épouse” (The wife) and “Le Collier” (The necklace). It’s in these songs that Fleming earns judge’s points over Anne Schwanewilms recording (my current favorite).

The Dutilleux songs aren’t quite as daunting as Messiaen’s, there are melodic and harmonic elements that remind me of late Poulenc, but that’s not to understate the music’s brilliance. Dutilleux’s songs sit happily in Fleming’s vocal comfort zone (he did write La Temps l’horloge for her after all) and her top notes have a natural glow that’s glorious.

I was greatly impressed with Gilbert. The gauzy textures, splashes of color and ecstatic explosions of the Ravel are perfectly realized. The Messiaen throws some seriously quirky rhythmic challenges to the performers and Gilbert and the orchestra handles them like a Renault making a hairpin turn. Ozawa leads a revelatory account of La Temps l’horloge, allowing Dutilleux’s colorful orchestration (the piece includes harpsichord and accordion) and spectacular vocal writing to speak for itself.

This recording is obviously self-recommending to all of Fleming’s fans; I think it’s easily the best thing she’s recorded in quite a while. But I also want to steer listeners who might be frightened by composers like Messiaen and Dutilleux to the album. This is gorgeous music that’s lush, breathlessly colorful and beautifully sung and played.

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