Renée Fleming: Four last songs. Songs and arias by Richard Strauss. Accompanied by Christian Thielemann with the Munich Philharmonics. April 2008 (released September 2008). Further information here.
Renée Fleming has repeatedly called Richard Strauss her favourite composer and in my view she is first and foremost a Richard Strauss soprano. Exquisite and elegant, she is a great Richard Strauss interpreter, most recently seen as a superb Capriccio-Countess in Vienna.
This is Renée Fleming´s second recording of Vier letzte lieder (VLL - Four last songs), the first from 1995 with Christoph Eschenbach, with whom she also recorded an all-Straus heroines (Arabella, Capriccio, Rosenkavalier) album. At the time of her first VLL-recording she had never sung the VLL in public, now her most frequently performed concert piece.
This all-Richard Strauss album was recorded in Munich in April 2008 from a series of concerts with Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonics and contains the Vier letzte lieder as well as four orchestral songs and selections from Aradne auf Naxos (track list below) and Ägyptische Helena. I attended one of the concerts in Munich (with Ariadne and some orchestral songs) and found both Renée Fleming and Christian Thielemann superb.
However, Renée Fleming´s singing on this album is generally not to my taste. Worst are the Vier letzte lieder. I find her style both mannered and artificial, she has a peculiar way of breathing with very sharp intakes of breath and there are no legato-lines to speak of. In short, I find it disappointing. She relies quite heavily on portamento, basically not a problem but together with what I perceive as artificial phrasings the overall impression is not what I would have hoped it to be. Though I am willing to cut Renée Fleming quite a lot of slack here, interpretatively she has crossed the imaginary line between elegance, sophistication and.. well, whatever is on the other side.
Much of the creamy beauty of her voice from ten years back is gone, however this was also so on her last album Homage and doesn´t apply specifically to this disc. Thus it comes as no surprise that she vocally is no match for her 1995 Vier letzte lieder disc, recorded in her prime and which furthermore comes with a much more straight-forward approach to the songs.
Interpretatively one may argue how deep she gets, both in 1995 and here in 2008 and in that regard I find no apparent differences between these two recordings.
After Vier letzte lieder, it gets better. The Ariadne selections sound less mannered, however as I hear it Renée Fleming doesn´t have the required expressive range or support in her middle register to be a great Ariadne or to carry the more expressive of the orchestral songs such as Zueinigung. Zweite brautnacht is Richard Strauss at his most tasteless, however Renée Fleming seems sufficiently challenged by the piece to minimize her mannered expressions and odd breathing. However, the orchestral songs are no match for her previous release either.
Personal preferences will dictate how one finds her in comparison to the numerous other versions of the Vier letzte lieder - such as Lisa della Casa, Lucia Popp and Jessye Norman all very different interpretations. Not to mention the all-time classics of Gundula Janowitz and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Christian Thielemann however, is superb. He shines in Richard Strauss and I cannot imagine a better accompaniement that the glittering, beautiful and exquisite sound he draws from the Munich Philharmonics. In the live performances, he drowned Renée Fleming completely. Something the recording engineers, as expected, have fixed.
It´s worth noting that this disc also is available in a 2-disc version, the second disc labelled: Signature roles at the MET containing releases of old DECCA recordings of excerpts from Eugene Onegin, Capriccio, Otello, Thaïs and Rusalka. Combined with the upcoming Renée Fleming-opens-the-MET-season-with-three-designer-dresses-and-three-roles HD transmitted season opening galla next week, crossing the imaginary line again comes to mind.
The good thing is however, that the entire disc is available for free listening via Renée Fleming´s website.
Promotional video, with interviews and excerpts from the Munich live performances:
1. Frühling (Vier letzte lieder)
2. September (Vier letzte lieder)
3. Beim Schlafengehen (Vier letzte lieder)
4. Im Abendrot (Vier letzte lieder)
5. Ach! Ach! Wo war ich? Tot? (Ariadne auf Naxos)
6. Ein schönes war: hieß Theseus (Ariadne auf Naxos)
7. "Es gibt ein Reich" (Ariadne auf Naxos)
9. Freundliche Vision
12. Zweite Brautnacht (Ägyptische Helena)
The bottom line (Scale of 1-5, 3=average):