The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra is badly cast with Renée Fleming. Plus, a young conductor shows how Brahms's 1st should be doneby Stephen Everson / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
The wrong orchestra
While it is all but unknown in lieder recitals for the singer to go off stage and allow the pianist to perform solo, when singers give recitals accompanied by an orchestra, it is standard practice for the orchestra to play works alone. So for Magdalena Kozená’s recital with Il Giardino Armonico at the Barbican in late October, in between the Mozart arias we were treated to alert and characterful performances of symphonies by Boccherini and CPE Bach. And when Andreas Scholl came to the Barbican to perform a couple of Bach cantatas for solo alto at the end of November, Accademia Bizantina also gave Handel’s organ concerto Op 4, No 4 and Bach’s concerto for two violins. Such programmes make good sense—a singer’s voice is obviously put under greater strain in a big hall against an orchestra than it is when singing with a piano in the Wigmore—but they do not always bring out the best in the audiences. Singers such as Kozená and Scholl have large and enthusiastic followings whose enthusiasm does not always extend to significant stretches of instrumental music, however interesting and well played.
Such mixed programmes also carry other dangers, as was all too clearly demonstrated in Renée Fleming’s recital at the beginning of December at the Barbican. Whereas Kozená and Scholl both chose to work with top-flight baroque ensembles, Fleming somehow ended up with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, which is apparently “in constant demand for performances and recordings of classical, light classical and popular music.” Whoever thought that an orchestra that specialises in accompanying the likes of Randy Newman and Hayley Westenra would be up to the demands of Puccini, Korngold and Richard Strauss is in the wrong business. Fleming herself was at least able to retire backstage for the instrumental pieces; the audience had to stay put and suffer. Never can one of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances have sounded more charmless, or the “Nocturne” from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream less magical. If the playing was more confident for La Calinda from Delius’s opera Koanga, this was only because, under Andreas Delfs’s florid direction, the musicians managed to make it sound like the music from Star Wars. Even had these pieces been competently performed and sensitively interpreted, their inclusion would have been pointless—a moronic injection of an orchestral pop concert into what should have been an operatic recital of the first order.
Fleming is still a singer about whom I have mixed feelings. She has a voice of great natural beauty and the technique to have refined it into one of the most beautiful of operatic voices. At times, however, the technical control that maintains the beauty of the production of the voice is allied to a lack of interpretative freedom. In “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, for instance, one was torn between admiration for her sheer command of the notes and the delicacy of her phrasing, and the wish for a degree more light and shade, as well as a greater willingness to vary the pace.
In contrast, in arias from Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane and Smetana’s Dalibor, where perhaps the weight of the tradition is less keenly felt, Fleming manifested in the first a controlled and in the second an all-but-uncontrolled abandon that showed her potential to be a great dramatic as well as a lyric soprano. Her recital ended with one of her finest set-pieces, the transformation scene that ends Richard Strauss’s Daphne. On her recent recording of the opera for Decca she sang this with an astonishingly ecstatic lyricism. At the Barbican, the loud, uncoordinated and often out-of-tune orchestral playing forced her to harden her voice just to make herself heard above the din. She sang the final bars, when Daphne has changed from woman to tree, from offstage. It wasn’t obvious whether this was planned or whether the fight with the orchestra had finally just got too much for her. If only the orchestra had gone off stage instead.
The rise of Philippe Jordan
Back in September, Valery Gergiev came to the Barbican with the Vienna Philharmonic for two concerts, during the course of which they gave what is probably the worst performance of a Brahms symphony I have ever heard. It was a relief, then, to go to the South Bank at the end of October and hear the Philharmonia under the young Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan give a stunning performance of the 1st symphony. Still only 31, Jordan has already established a formidable career in the opera house. As early as 1994, he was appointed first kapellmeister at Ulm (where the 21-year-old Karajan was appointed assistant kappellmeister in 1929) and he has since conducted in Brussels, Paris, Vienna, London, New York and Salzburg. Given the state of the record industry, Jordan has yet to become well known to those who are not regular visitors to the world’s major opera houses—though his remarkably sensual account of Massenet’s Werther from Vienna in 2005 is available on DVD from TDK. What was so encouraging about the Philharmonia concert was Jordan’s evident mastery of this central piece of the symphonic repertoire, as well as the way his presence galvanised the orchestra, which played at its best for him. Had Esa-Pekka Salonen not just accepted the post as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor, Jordan would have made an exciting choice. It would be good to see the relationship deepened in a more formal way.