Renée Fleming, Barbican, London

The clue to this recital came in the second half with Renée Fleming’s introduction to her selection of songs. It is the pleasure of singing Strauss throughout her career that has drawn her to explore his contemporaries from that sensuous, late Romantic period, including some composers whose songs get performed far less often – Zemlinsky, Korngold, early Schoenberg.

The result made an unusual mix. Fleming brought all the trappings of celebrity to this afternoon event, including a glamorous change of dress at the half-way mark, and yet much of the music was both unfamiliar and romantically withdrawn, as though wanting to stay just out of the audience’s reach.

The recital took a while to get going. In an opening group of Wolf songs to poems by Goethe, Fleming’s soprano sounded cautious (she was suffering from the after-effects of a cold) and the sensibility was over-sweet. When Fleming wants to be expressive, she has a tendency to slow down and cosset the music. The first of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder roused itself with a self-admiring languor, like a cat stretching itself in the sun, and the last of them, the favourite “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, was far too primped and preened – even if the beauty of Fleming’s voice on the single word “ruh” near the end was breathtaking.

The second half was better. Returning in a sparkling, gold evening gown (“Don’t miss the Klimt connection”), Fleming turned to the lesser-known songs of turn-of-the-century Vienna. From an early pair of songs by Schoenberg, including his ballad of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, the vocal line was firmer and the poems came across in complete sentences rather as isolated, pampered words.

Zemlinsky’s short cycle of Five Poems on texts by Richard Dehmel – a real rarity – ventures into the erotic dream world of Freud, lusciously evoked by Fleming’s creamy soprano and accompaniments by Maciej Pikulski that were a lot more detailed and volatile than the average. From there to Korngold was but a small step and Fleming was on home ground with the soaring top notes of “Was Du mir bist” and, her first encore, Marietta’s Lied from Die tote Stadt. Whatever doubts linger about her as a song recitalist, Fleming’s voice remains a marvel.

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