I spent much of the subway ride home last night trying to figure out a version of recital encore bingo. The center free space would be “you didn’t catch what it was”; “Morgen” would be on it, as would “Danny Boy,” which I have now heard a fairly alarming three or four times in the space of about five months. Renée Fleming, if you are curious, sang “Danny Boy” as one of three encores, but did not venture “Morgen.” I was kind of relieved, even though the other two – “Shall we dance” (I think that’s what it’s called, anyway) and “O mio babbino caro” were not such material as normally makes me fall off my chair with excitement.
I was neutral going into this concert. It’s part of a series (Damrau, Kaufmann, Hvorostovsky and Fleming) that I subscribed to primarily for the concert that got cancelled, but I was more than happy to go to the others too. I am not and have never been a headbanging Renée Fleming fan, though I do like her recording of Dvořák’s Rusalka and several of her Strauss albums.
The program last night was a fairly eclectic mixture, starting with Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -Leben.” This cycle is not a favorite of mine, though I seem, for reasons we do not need to explore right now, to end up hearing it approximately every fifteen minutes. Fleming’s interpretation seemed halting to me; I couldn’t quite follow the shape of what she was doing. She created a dramatic shift in vocal color for the final song, which makes sense given that the cycle takes a ginormous leap forward in time (as she explained in her short introduction to the cycle, there are some songs in the original set of poems that Schumann chose not to set, which may do something to fill in the narrative gap) but it felt a little much to me.
The next group, songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff, I enjoyed more, particularly the second, “Sing unto to me, beautiful maiden”. I have heard Fleming live only once before, several years ago in Rodelinda and I will cheerfully admit to simply enjoying the color of her voice. The pianist, Olga Kern, also got a moment to shine during this set in a solo piano version of “Lilacs.”
I mentioned just now that the program seemed eclectic – the second half consisted of a set of Debussy songs (and a solo piano piece), followed by a set of songs by jazz pianist, singer and composer Patricia Barber. I recall thinking at the end of the Barber songs that it was sort of an interesting trip from “Frauenliebe und -Leben” to this, but also that Debussy and Barber together were a nice combination. Fleming sings Debussy well; these songs had a flow to them that I missed in the Schumann. Barber’s songs were more on the jazz end of the art song spectrum than I’m used to, and Fleming delivered these with flair and a style that was entirely correct. This seems to be a consistent feature of her singing, at least to my ears – it’s perfectly polished, very beautiful, sincere and appropriate to the occasion. It’s not balls-to-the-wall-hurl-yourself-into-the-moment, but it’s certainly a nice way to spend an evening.