Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fin-de-siècle fantasies: Renee Fleming, Jeremy Denk, & the Emerson Quartet

Adele Bloch-Bauer I: Gustav Klimt, 1907
Saturday, May 4 saw the last night of Renee Fleming's "Perspectives" series at Carnegie Hall, and its inventive programming and insightful delivery spoke well both for the artist and for the series concept. The selection and arrangement of pieces resisted any teleological or excessively literal interpretation of how the music represented the window to modernity of the program's title. Intricately interwoven, the selections proved mutually illuminating, with several texts in multiple settings, and sensibilities and styles ranging from the full, complex romanticism of Brahms through the lush sensuality of Strauss and Wagner to sharp minimalism. Two of the composers (Wellesz and Zeisl) were new to me; another reminder of the extraordinary artistic ferment of Vienna around the turn of the twentieth century. The artistry of Fleming, Denk, and the Emerson Quartet was likewise not merely intelligent, but itself creative.

The first half of the program focused on the late nineteenth century's changing representations and understandings of romantic love and female agency. First came Richard Strauss' Drei Lieder der Ophelia (1918), in which Fleming embraced the passionate mourning of the text, refusing to treat it as madness. This Ophelia charts a journey from incredulity to resignation, and there is more than a little outrage in her grief, especially vivid in "Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloss." The knowing sensuality is not reserved for the Valentinstag text. By contrast, the wistful poignancy of Brahms' Ophelia-Lieder (1873, significantly set to a much earlier translation) seemed surprisingly reserved. Ophelia may desire forbidden knowledge, but she cannot imagine what it is. Jeremy Denk's variation of color in the piano between the two cycles was most impressive, helping in their comparison. A truly radiant Verklärte Nacht closed the first half, with the Emerson Quartet aided by violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr. I was most impressed by the clear through-line that this interpretation gave the piece, the bond between the lovers present even in turmoil, and providing a revelation of security and hope that was long and ever-expanding, the voices of the instruments intertwining in apparently endless permutations, celebrating the inexhaustibility of love.

After the interval, the sextet returned for "Im Treibhaus" and "Träume" from the Wesendonck Lieder. Though I love the cycle, and though Fleming certainly infused the selections with suitably lush sensuality, this struck me as a relative weak point. An unusually rapid tempo worked against the introspective mood, I thought, but this might have been less of a problem of Fleming's diction had been more clear. As it was, a great deal of musical and emotional specificity was lost. Precision and passion were, however, ideally yoked in Jeremy Denk's luminous rendition of two Brahms intermezzi (Op. 1118 No. 1-2.) In Denk's hands, these fin-de-siècle gems were of impressive power as well as hypnotic loveliness. The rest of the evening was devoted to relatively unfamiliar composers, or noted composers' lesser-known work. Working with the Emerson Quartet allowed Fleming to present many chamber pieces (a rare treat for me) beginning with "Trost" and "Regenlied" from Karl Weigl's Five Songs for Soprano and String Quartet. Both bordered on the overwrought, but Fleming and the quartet treated the pastorals with a sense of narrative distance that served them well. Egon Wellesz' setting of "Mir scheint, das Angesicht der Welt verging," also from 1934, stood in stark contrast to these, its melodic lines powerless to resist the anarchy its text so desperately denies. (Parenthetically, I've decided I want to own the Rilke translation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese.) Fleming seemed to anticipate that the audience would need placating before exposure to Webern's ultra-minimalism, but the Drei Stücke were given with a brilliant, unbalanced, uneasy flair that needed no excuse and no explanation. In Eric Zeisl's "Der Mond steht da" and "Komm, süsser Tod," Fleming colored her tone expressively, and with special poignancy in the latter. The contrast of Zeisl's musical language with the text beautifully conveyed a longing for the irrevocably lost. Denk joined Fleming again for the same composer's setting of Gigerlette, a charmingly raunchy romp. In closing we received two selections from Schoenberg's wonderful Brettl-Lieder: the sumptuous Galatea and the sexy Gigerlette. Musically, they allowed Fleming to display her considerable strengths; dramatically, to reveal gifts of which I was unaware. I was both surprised and delighted by the frankness with which Fleming communicated the intense indecency of both pieces.

After such artistic journeys, the encore of Richard Tauber hit "I'm in love with Vienna" seemed jarringly frivolous to me, but was popular.
The Emerson Quartet returned with Denk and Fleming for an exquisite account of Strauss' "Morgen," given with a welcome straightforwardness by Fleming. With delivery that was both polished and direct, we were given a tantalizing look at worlds experiencing and contemplating change.


  1. WAGNERDAY! I'm waiting for a special post today!

    1. Sorry; my time has not been my own this week. Moreover, although I'm very excited about a season of celebrating Wagner's music, I have to admit that I'd feel a bit odd about celebrating his birthday per se. (One of my earliest blog posts was on the ticklish subject of Wagner's life and his music:


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