Given the rival attractions at this time of year, it can be tough trying to sell a standard classical music concert, but the London Philharmonic Orchestra turned up a sure-fire solution. They booked Renée Fleming to sing Strauss’s Four Last Songs, always an audience favourite and one of the sought-after American soprano’s signature pieces.
The concert packed them in. As well as her drawing power, Fleming comes with a reputation for reliability, so firstly she is unlikely to cancel, and secondly her voice never lets her down. Occasionally here a long line was broken so that she could snatch an extra breath – it is best not to split the syllables of “tausendfach” in the third song, if it can be helped – and from time to time she would pounce unexpectedly on certain key words with intent, like a kitten that has spied a mouse ripe for dismembering. But nitpicking cannot take away from singing that floats on such an effortless stream of warm and beautiful tone. Fleming was made for these Strauss songs, and they for her.
In this performance the music was presented as high German romanticism. The conductor was Christoph Eschenbach, with whom Fleming has often sung (and recorded) the songs. He favours a very full texture from the orchestra, so it is fortunate that Fleming’s voice has more richness lower down than some others of its kind, and Strauss’s accompaniments surged in waves of sound. Like a Wagnerian threnody, the last song faded away slowly and grandly, as if looking out over a majestic landscape of autumnal bronze and deep red. For an encore, Fleming and Eschenbach offered Strauss’s “Waldseligkeit” – more quietly rapturous singing, more lush, woodland poetry from the orchestra.
The rest of the programme stayed firmly within the central German repertoire. Eschenbach and the LPO had opened the concert with the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser and ended with a grandly traditional Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, played straight through with barely a breath between movements. Most of the audience probably looked upon these orchestral items as fillers for the main event but the playing was well rehearsed and the attention to detail sufficiently thoughtful to lift the performances into a higher quality bracket.