Renée Fleming/Hartmut Höll, Carnegie Hall, New York

Renée Fleming plays by her own rules. At a time when bona-fide divas are as scarce as warm days in January, she dares to defy convention.

At the Met, her home since 1991, she seems to have foresworn the so-called standard repertory in favour of such specialties as Rossini’s Armida and Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. For her well-attended Carnegie Hall recital, she chose a difficult, essentially introspective collection of doom-and-gloomy art-songs that approached terra cognita only with Strauss’s Traum durch die Dämmerung. No hum-along hits.

She looked gorgeous modelling two glamourous gowns, spangly shoulder straps serving as leitmotif. Her soprano sounded abidingly fresh, belying the prosaic fact that her 52nd birthday looms. Her tone emerged exquisite, the top silvery, the emission steady. She demonstrated sensitivity for mood and text, even when her diction blurred and her articulation got a bit fussy (shades, perhaps, of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf). Above all, she enjoyed the advantage of working with the superb pianist Hartmut Höll – emphatically a partner, not an accompanist.

Still, she encountered some vexations. The most serious one involved Carnegie Hall itself. Accommodating 2,800, it is not a place where little things can mean a lot. Decent acoustics notwithstanding, subtle nuances and tender reflections get lost in the wide open spaces. Disconcerting, too, was the emotional and musical dissonance that dominated the brief programme. A little Weltschmerz can go a long way.

Fleming’s survey began with fascinating explorations of romanticism in decay, Schoenberg’s stark Jane Grey of 1907 contrasted with five grim lieder written the same year by his less successful brother-in-law, Alexander Zemlinsky. Three essentially morbid entries by Erich Korngold, dated 1920-21, hinted at what the Austrian chameleon might have become had he not succumbed to the lucrative lure of Hollywood. Four of Brad Mehldau’s Love Poems to God (2005) neatly fused gentle jazz with retro-pessimism. In this context, a quartet of lush lieder by Strauss, spanning 1895 and 1900, bore the appeal of forbidden candy.

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