Diva-gations

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 21, 2009

At the very end, after the quiet dissolve of the English horn, I'm not sure how long Wigglesworth waited to drop his arms and let us applaud, but it was too long.

Renée Fleming, the world's favorite soprano, and the world's greatest accompanist, Hartmut Höll, packed Symphony Hall for their Celebrity Series of Boston recital. She was, she said, glad to be back in Symphony Hall at the end of her current tour. The program was all 20th-century music, "and all close to my heart." In honor of André Previn's 80th birthday, she opened with a piece for voice, piano, and alto flute (the estimable Linda Toote, formerly of the BSO and now principal flute of Boston Lyric Opera), one he wrote for Fleming after she sang Blanche in his Streetcar Named Desire opera. The Giraffes Go to Hamburg is a setting of a touching prose passage from Isak Dinesen about seeing two giraffes on a German cargo steamer in Mombasa heading for a traveling menagerie and hoping they might die before they had to suffer such humiliation. Settings of short prose pieces always call to my mind Samuel Barber's magical musicalization of James Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with its soaring, unforgettable melodies and vivid American atmosphere. Previn's piece was all recitative, without memorable tunes, and no particularized atmosphere. But he certainly knows Fleming's voice, and he gave her some beautiful high notes to reach up to on the words "giraffe" and "sailing."

She ended the first half with another prose setting composed for her — A Letter from Sullivan Ballou, a Civil War love letter written by someone who would soon die at Bull Run, and composed by John Kander (who wrote "New York, New York," and the music for Cabaret and Chicago). "It's a poignant testament to the personal cost of war," she told us; "I've been singing this a lot." Unfortunately, it sounded nothing like Kander, just another classical-concert imitation, this time interspersed with Civil War tunes and 19th-century parlor ballads. He could have called it Bull Run: Summer of 1861.

In between, Fleming sang four of Olivier Messiaen's nine Poèmes pour Mi, subtle, sensual, spiritual love songs for which he used his own poems. Fleming suggested that their repetitions foreshadowed the minimalists. Although I prefer the orchestral version, Höll at least had a chance to match Fleming's gorgeous, heartfelt vocalism (comet-like runs on the words "lumière" and "étoile") with some subtle and eloquent playing of his own, stairways to Fleming's stars. She told us she was happy the lights were being turned up so we could read the poems as she sang. But there was barely half an hour of music before intermission, and anyone who left might have felt more frustration than satisfaction.

The second part (Fleming having changed her stark black gown for luxuriant dark crimson) was bracketed by two lush Korngold arias, an unfamiliar bittersweet farewell aria from his final opera, Die Kathrin ("Katherine," 1939), and the famous "Mariettas Lied" from his early hit Die tote Stadt ("The Dead City," 1920), a Fleming specialty that sounded about as luscious as this luscious aria can sound. And in between came five familiar and less familiar songs by Richard Strauss ("my desert island composer") about youthful passion and mature love (we could probably guess which was which, she told us). No non-German singer — maybe no singer at all — sings Strauss as ravishingly as Fleming at her best, and she was at her best. So was Höll, with his shimmering pianism.

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