It says a lot for the pulling power of Renée Fleming that at a time when most singers are struggling to make any recordings at all, she's just released her second account of Richard Strauss' valedictory Four Last Songs.
But it's not just because the American diva is amongst the world's finest and most popular singers that Decca has made the new release, nor even because the previous one was for rival label RCA; rather, the radically different interpretation justifies a new recording which offers a fascinating new passage into this often enigmatic work.
It's thirteen years since Fleming first recorded the Vier Letzte Lieder, and at that point she hadn't sung them live in concert. Now they've become the most frequently-performed items in her repertoire, and this new rendition easily supersedes the earlier one. Admittedly, on re-listening to the RCA version I was surprised at how accomplished Fleming's performance was even then: she has the measure of the songs' ambience and in some instances produces smoother results (a neater ascent through 'Seele' in 'Beim Schlafengehen', for instance). But it's a fairly conventional account compared to the Decca version, which is by far the most interventionist performance of the songs I've ever heard.
Fleming picks over every syllable with meticulousness and curiosity, and she's matched in these characteristics by the extraordinary playing and conducting of the Münchner Philhamoniker under Christian Thielemann. One could say that Fleming finds a different colour for every note, except that in many cases she finds several colours for a single note. Thielemann, meanwhile, unearths more detail in the orchestration than one would expect to be able to detect in this piece in one's wildest dreams, allowing the listener to hear the smoothness with which Strauss enacts enharmonic shifts with the utmost clarity, for example. It won't be to everyone's taste, but it's certainly a thought-provoking experience.
In 'Frühling', one can immediately foresee the direction Fleming is going to take: a wondered emphasis on the images of trees and breezes of which the poet is dreaming, unbroken legato on the four-bar setting of the word 'Vogelsang', sharp accents on the word 'zittert' to illustrate the lover's quivering limbs. The benefit of the splendid Munich orchestra is apparent in the flute trills during the mention of bird song, the descending trombone line on 'selige' and the secure horn playing in the closing bars. At times, all this detail can be too much, in that the overt eroticism of the text is to an extent undermined by the assertion of so many details, but I find it irresistible, especially when compared to the bland contribution of the Houston Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach on the earlier account.
The rendition of 'September' is especially poignant in this recording; indeed I find that Fleming treats this song as more flagrantly autumnal than the normally acquiescent 'Beim Schlafengehen', whose image of going to sleep borders on the nightmarish here. Perhaps that's as the texts dictate. The garden is mourning and the rain is sinking into the flowers in 'September', images Thielemann promotes by bringing forward the high woodwind and solo violin in the introduction, where the dotted rhythms are far more detached than on conventional readings; the orchestra also sighs in the espressivo lead-in to the couplet depicting summer 'smiling in the dying garden's dream'. Fleming, for her part, emphasises the 'faintness' of summer's smile and highlights the dissonant notes in the line during the words 'sterbenden Gartentraum'. There's a resignation to death here, neatly summarised at the end as the singer slows right down and brings the dynamic to a minimum, fading out on the image of the protagonist closing her weary eyes and passing over to the immaculately played solo horn whose significance is painfully clear.
'Beim Schlafengehen', by comparison, is as far from serene as Fleming can take it. In the first stanza particularly, many of the words are detached and articulated with an unusual fearfulness. Often appropriated by sopranos to show a sense of line and control, here the song contains a tension between the knowledge that inevitable death is coming and a resistance to it. In the glorious final stanza, for instance, 'unbewacht' – 'unguarded' – stands out bare from the rest of the line as if to suggest that the poet's nerves have to be surmounted before his soul can soar free to live in the 'magic circle of night'. At the last, I'm not sure this approach is entirely convincing, inasmuch as Strauss' love affair with the soprano voice was probably more important to him than the illustration of every single word in the texts he set, and this song is surely a showcase for a beautiful voice, but one has to admire Fleming for trying to reassess its meaning. Again, the playing is sensitive, though an otherwise beautiful violin solo is marred by a strange blemish at around 2'09 on the CD track.
The playing is also exquisite in the final song, 'Im Abendrot', which is apparently Fleming's favourite of the four. She seems to regard it as stasis in music – 'it feels completely suspended', she says in an interview quoted in the liner notes – but for me the pacing of the song isn't entirely convincing. As much as Fleming lavishes the full riches of her voice on the performance, Thielemann doesn't handle the structure as deftly as he does in the other songs. It's a notoriously controversial piece to conduct, in that the time signature changes constantly in order to effect a slowing down as the song progresses. Most conductors manage it in around seven and a half minutes or so, with Kurt Masur/Jessye Norman weighing in at 9'49 and Solti/Te Kanawa doing it in 6'17. Thielemann is in the middle with 7'56, but even so this feels like a slow version; he sets off with so little momentum – probably deliberately, to concur with Fleming's view of the text – that he leaves himself nowhere to go by the end. Nonetheless, there's much to admire in the overall gravity of the performance, which is German orchestral playing at its finest.
As much as the Four Last Songs are the selling point of the disc, the remaining tracks are far more than mere fillers. Three slices of Ariadne auf Naxos are especially intriguing: if 'Ach! Wo war ich?' lies a little too low for her, Fleming soars effortlessly in 'Ein Schönes war', and the articulative gestures in 'Es gibt ein Reich' bring it close to the Four Last Songs in their level of intervention. Of four additional Lied performances, those of 'Zueignung' and 'Verführung' mark the finest, the former fabulously rich, the latter fervently erotic; 'Zweite Brautnacht!' from Die ägyptische Helena closes the disc in extravagant mode.
To record something twice demands that the performer having something new to say, and through highlighting the subjectivity of the Four Last Songs' meaning, Fleming has justified the luxury afforded her. High-quality music-making, well-recorded, makes this an important release.