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Was it a puritan or a hedonist who planned Monday’s Prom? At its centre were romantic vocal numbers of unadulterated sensual ecstasy, but on either side they were imprisoned by a pair of strictly formal German symphonies, the high walls of classical culture.
The star quality of the evening was provided by soprano Renée Fleming, who attracted an almost sold-out hall. Fleming’s voice is unrivalled for its beauty at the moment and when she is on good form the only other sounds to be heard are the helpless gurglings of unmitigated sensory pleasure.
In concert her favourite knock-out offering is Strauss’s Four Last Songs, but she has sung those before at the BBC Proms, so something else was required this time. She chose Berg’s Seven Early Songs, which are similar in their late romantic atmosphere, although the lower range of the vocal part makes them a rather different prospect for the singer. More meat is needed in the middle of the voice (Jessye Norman sang them memorably at the Proms before) and Fleming is pushed to find that. As long as the conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, kept the orchestra down all was well, but for much of the time Fleming’s soprano disappeared gracefully into Berg’s undergrowth of luxuriant orchestral colours. As a novelty, a previously unknown eighth song – “An Leukon”, orchestrated by Christopher Gordon – was added. It broke the consistent spell that Berg has woven, but for a couple of minutes lifted Fleming’s voice into the higher range where she excels.
After the interval she returned refreshed to sing a couple of arias from Korngold’s operas Die Kathrin and Das Wunder der Heliane. Here the vocal part soared and Fleming’s voice took flight with it, revelling in the unapologetic Hollywood-esque glamour of the music. At this point the hedonists in the audience should probably have made for the door.
The two symphonies – Beethoven’s Eighth and Schumann’s Second – provided a shower of cold water. Noseda has worked hard in his position as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic to stamp unanimity of purpose on the orchestra’s playing. Its performances of the symphonies were crisp and alert with not a hint of indulgence, even in the yearning slow movement of the Schumann – just strict orchestral discipline and a strong sense of classical symphonic momentum.
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