thu 18/08/2022

Fleming, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Fleming, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican

Fleming, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican

Star soprano shines in adventurous new works

Renée Fleming with the BBCSO and chief conductor Sakari OramoAll images Mark Allan/BBC

Renée Fleming recently announced her imminent retirement from the opera stage. But she has no plans to stop performing, and will instead devote her time to recitals and concerts. Yesterday’s excellent performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra bodes well for her new career focus. And she’s not one to rest on her laurels, here giving UK premieres of two new works written for her voice, ever the adventurous artist, always playing to her strengths.

Now in her late 50s, Fleming can hardly be said to sound young. She has lost some of the flexibility in her tone, and no longer projects as freely or as naturally as in decades past. She is most secure in the top register, where her tone is still pure and she can project with greater ease. Lower down, she loses tonal focus. But the personality and distinctive timbre are as apparent as ever, that light, playful quality and speech-like ease of diction. When the music suits her, the results are magical.

Holloway, Fleming and OramoRobin Holloway (pictured right with Fleming and Oramo) wrote, or rather arranged, C’est l’extase for Fleming and the San Francisco Symphony in 2012. The work is based on Debussy Verlaine songs, Ariettes oubliées and Trois Mélodies. Ten songs are chosen, the piano parts arranged for chamber orchestra, and linking music provided to create a continuous 20-minute span. Holloway retains the original key of each song, but orders them freely. He doesn’t attempt to conceal the joins, nor does he ape Debussy’s own orchestral approach, instead hovering around the borders of deliberate pastiche without doing anything that could be mistaken for the real thing. So, like Debussy, he makes extensive use of woodwind solos, but he will also often use the woodwind section in isolation, with extended passages omitting the strings. The transitions are brief, but there is also an impressive epilogue to round off the work.

Fleming sings the Debussy wonderfully. Her French sounds perfectly idiomatic (at least to these barely-Francophone ears) with satisfyingly nasal vowels. Some of the songs feel a little low for her, and Holloway makes no concession in his balances, but in the high register she floats gracefully across the textures.

Anders Hillborg’s The Strand Settings was completed in 2013, to a commission from the New York Philharmonic. The texts, by Mark Strand, date from the last 20 years or so and have a very contemporary feel, poetic in structure but avoiding elaborate metaphors or archaic constructions. There is a dark, nocturnal quality to the texts that Hillborg (pictured below with Fleming) puts across effectively. His general approach is to hold string chords as a background, above which Fleming sings in a free recitative style, interspersed, or overlayed, with more complex textures in the winds and percussion.

Anders Hillborg and Renee FlemingThe piece feels a better fit for Fleming’s voice, for its expressive but uncomplicated vocal lines. Fleming is given space to communicate the texts without the music getting in the way. And Hillborg’s setting of the English language is excellent. He doesn’t shy away from highly contoured vocal lines, but they always fit the cadence of the poetry. The orchestral interjections explore a range of styles: in the second song, the text describing a nocturnal urban setting, we get some snatches of jazz, a walking pizzicato bass and some riffs from the woodwinds. In the third, there is a brief episode of Steve Reich-like minimalism in the piano. But it all coheres, thanks to those long string pedals and the composer’s keen focus on the texts.

To frame the programme, two Diaghilev ballets, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to open and the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe as a finale. Sakari Oramo led fine performances of both, disciplined but not overly strict. The BBC Singers were a little swamped in the Ravel, but their contributions were suitably atmospheric. Both scores are dominated by the flute, and Michael Cox, the BBCSO’s principal, gave outstanding performances, as did the whole of his section in the Ravel. All round, an imaginative programme, performed with colour and flair by the orchestra, and an ideal showcase for the talents of their celebrity guest.


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