Strauss - Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder), Alpine Symphony

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Friday May 19 2017

Conductor: Christian Thielemann. Renée Fleming, soprano. Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden.
  • Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder), Op. 150.
  • Alpine Symphony (Eine Alpensinfonie), Op. 64.
The day of the concert, I posted this on Facebook:

The website of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées reduces The Four Last Songs sung by Renée Fleming to something like a cheese straw:

"Leur première soirée cette saison sera de nouveau consacrée à Strauss, Dresde oblige, avec le poème
Une symphonie Alpestre, autre page de Strauss de grande ampleur et à l’orchestration particulièrement riche. Et en guise de mise en bouche, les Quatre derniers Lieder, tout autant testament musical du compositeur que chant du cygne de la musique romantique, interprétés par la soprano américaine Renée Fleming."

A "mise en bouche" is a pre-dinner nibble of some kind. A canapé. A cube of cheese on a cocktail stick...

In the end, as there was no overture to set the scene and warm up the audience, it turned out to be true. Renée Fleming had to "go in cold" to deliver her introspective, low-key performance of the songs - each one better than the one before. Despite her fame, she remains quite a "polarising" soprano. One man's expressiveness is another man's mannerisms and there are corners of the web where she's nicknamed "La Scoopenda". I put what sounded to me like erratic singing, ranging from fairly full voice to quite disembodied, in Frühling down to getting off to a difficult start in ill-conceived circumstances, rather than any deliberate aim for effect. I may be wrong. Frühling's vocal line is more twisting, less plain sailing, than the others.

The familiar, dark, grainy undertone is more pronounced now: rich and almost crunchy. I don't know why we like foody metaphors for voices, but if her voice was always supposedly "creamy" it seems now to be "chocolatey". I like that. And it still soars when soaring is in order, e.g. in the "skylark" episode. Im Abendrot verged on magnificent. Thielemann literally bent over backwards to be constantly attentive to his soloist, perhaps in part because there were times she wanted to hold back a bit from his tempi, faster than Eschenbach's (which put me off listening to that CD more than once) and linger longer. But open a concert with such a display of reserve and reticence, and then go on to do the Alpine Symphony, and by the end you've very nearly forgotten the songs were ever there: a cheese straw.

As bloggers noted online, the applause was more vigorously enthusiastic after the symphony, which I suppose is hardly surprising after a virtuoso display of climax after climax with not all that much repose in between. Thielemann's approach is fairly straightforward: moderate tempi, no undue hanging around and no undue schmaltz. The sound is fairly blended but not at the expense of detail: you can hear all that string rippling, for example.

The orchestra was as I've known them since first hearing them on vinyl when I was a teenager. Back then the first thing that really wowed me, other than the overall virtuosity, was the violins' uncanny ability to play high, loud passages as one searing instrument. They did it again on Friday night. And of course the double basses grumbled marvellously at the start, the principal trumpet shot out incredible, gimlet high notes, there was gloriously raw playing from the clarinets and flutes, the horns were a wall, and the percussionists went berserk at the back.

What a noisy work it is really. Some people must really hate it, but I like noise and I like Kitsch. Demanding for the players ("needlessly difficult," a late friend used to say of some of Strauss's scores), not one to put on every orchestra's stands (for one thing, it requires exceptional sustaining ability), but Strauss thought the Hofkapelle, as it was then, could handle it alright and premiered it with them. So they gave us a super display of orchestral fire power - but wiped out the songs.


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