Christoph Eschenbach seems long-since to have abandoned his once-glittering career as a pianist, and to have settled into the routine of international Maestro-for-hire, as both Barenboim and Ashkenazy have done before him (though both the latter keep a rather more active involvement in things pianistic). His tenure at the Philadelphia Orchestra – now technically in receivership, though revving up for resurrection under Nézet-Séguin – ended both prematurely and acrimoniously a few years back. But Eschenbach’s relationship with the London Philharmonic Orchestra seems an unruffled business, the German Maestro duly reappearing season after season in what one might style core Austro-German repertory, and probably filling the gap left in the schedules by the no-less acrimonious parting of the ways which Kurt Masur’s exit from the orchestra left in its wake. Clearly, he is a great favourite with Renée Fleming, particularly in the Strauss repertory in general, and the Four Last Songs in particular: indeed her first recording of the songs was made under him during his tenure at the Houston Symphony some twelve years ago.
That RCA recording is very hard to like: turgid to a degree only matched by the lugubrious and marmoreal Jessye Norman performance on Philips which was so bloatedly slow that it stretched what in performance usually clocks in at about 21 or so minutes to a grotesque 28. But since then, Ms. Fleming – the new Mrs. Jessell, having at last captured her Quint – has re-recorded the songs with Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic in performances that may still be on the spacious side, but which never lapse into lethargy. How would they fare now, live, I was wondering? Would Eschenbach’s presence signify a return to all-purpose torpor?
Well, not entirely, though the conductor is still far too inclined to treat the sequence as some actively accumulating artefact of angst, each song not just longer – that much is Strauss’s doing, though the running order isn’t his – but markedly slower and more emotionally heavy than that which precedes it in the standard performance order customary these days. It wasn’t always so: listen to the live premiere with Flagstad in 1950 on Testament, or Lisa della Casa’s premiere studio recording for Decca under Karl Böhm for different takes on how they can be ordered. And Böhm and della Casa are done-and-dusted in 18½ minutes flat. Given that the conductor was both the dedicatee, and led the premieres, of several late Strauss scores and was highly approved of by the composer, we might profitably pay some attention to his thoughts on the matter of how the songs should “go”. In the modern era, only Solti has been comparably brisk, bless him: whilst with the gradual disappearance of all those interpreters who had their Straussian stylistic training at more-or-less first-hand from the Grand Old Man of Garmisch himself or his immediate circle – only the long-since retired Wolfgang Sawallisch remains a direct, living link – the usual crowd of “we know better”s has come along, as they also have with poor Mahler too, pulling the music this way and that, milking it mercilessly for more emotional weight than the music was ever intended to bear, much less express, and generally engaging in a sort of musical pissing contest to see who can actually drag a score out the longest.
So to record that this latest live outing took 25 minutes gives some idea of the generally funereal tempos adopted. As I’ve said, it was bizarrely cumulative in that the opening song – Frühling – went at an unexceptional, suitably flowing pace which wholly convinced me (and at score pitch, which is more than Schwarzkopf used to manage): but each successive song got progressively slower, until by the last – Im Abendrot – we were recognisably, alas, in Jessye Norman territory, teetering on the edge of complete stasis. I don’t feel the music this way, and don’t for an instant believe that this is what Strauss intended in writing it either (he’s widely enough represented on recordings of his own music, especially those made in tolerable sound in the 1940s, to be heard never giving the slightest hint of self-indulgence or overblown sentimentality in even his most gorgeous effusions, all duly despatched in strict tempo and without fuss or fawning). So, given that I really disliked the conducting, what can be said of Fleming’s singing?
For a woman I first heard live in 1989, who has pretty much sung non-stop ever since, and who is now in her 53rd year, she is rather remarkable. There really isn’t a scratch on the surface of the sound, the merest hint of any loss of control over evenness of emission, any trace of strain in reaching high notes, or the least suggestion of a shortened breath-line. The voice remains, in fact, in all practical, technical aspects, in pristine condition, full-bodied and ravishingly lovely, and still capable of singing the soaring “Wie ein Wunder vor mir” in Frühling on a single, inexhaustible breath; and perfectly able to project the last line of September – the last of the songs to be composed – with “Augen” sung as a single, long melismata as written, rather than the oft-encountered desperate, short-winded expedient of breaking the line with a gasp for air and then repeating “Müdgeword’nen” in front of a repeat of “Augen” (just in case you’d forgotten in the interim that it was your eyes that were tired).
Nor do I think that there has been any meaningful loss of either bloom or dynamic (though I know people who disagree with me about this, poor deaf dears). The voice I heard tonight was in all essentials the voice I heard 22 years ago (singing Cherubini, would you believe?) and complaints that it is now too small-scale are misplaced: it’s no smaller – though admittedly, and slightly unusually after such a time, no bigger either – than it ever was. And any perceived loss of bloom is alas only too easily accounted for by the Royal Festival Hall’s subfusc sonics, in my time a graveyard for virtually all voices (and now, post £100 million rejig, wholly at the audible mercy of every train that trundles over Hungerford Bridge. Now they know why so much asbestos was stuck in the walls and ceiling in the previous 1960s refit, now all of course foolishly removed). When I heard Fleming earlier this year at the Metropolitan, singing Madeleine in Strauss’s Capriccio, she sounded quite glorious in the house’s exquisitely clear and warmly rounded acoustic: and, making allowances for the differences in the two auditoria, she sounded the same here.
Also, for an artist whose diction is so regularly berated – “Renée Flemish” a critical low-point – she was obviously working flat-out-plus-overtime to put the text across, and from where I was sitting did so with conspicuous success, including a microscopically precise observance of the often unidiomatically slurred-over double consonant in the centre of “Schlafenszeit” in Im Abendrot, which only someone perfectly versed in the language would either know or notice. So: although I found the performance less than satisfying – or indeed, even moving – due to the treacly conducting, I have few enough quibbles about her contribution, the fourth, and I think finest, occasion on which I’ve heard her sing the Vier Letzte Lieder live, and with quite the least amount of bluesy bending of notes to boot, thank God (“Zauberkreis” in Beim Schlafengehen – exemplary violin solo from Pieter Schoeman - and some queasy slithering around the notes at “erstaunt und matt in den sterbenden Gartentraum” in September the only notable and regrettable exceptions). To a rapturous reception from the (over)packed house – standees even, for the first time I can recall in years – she gave an encore: Strauss’s Waldseligkeit (Opus 49, number 1, written in 1901 but only orchestrated in 1918) which in its rapt intensity of line and tone really nailed the ecstatic “floating” quality that characterises Strauss’s writing for the soprano voice to perfection.
Just for the record, the diva was bookended by the original overture to Tannhäuser (i.e. no Venusberg continuation: the pilgrims come back for a second blast on the trombones) and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The former was interestingly tempo molto rubato; the latter absolutely D.O.A, I’m afraid, the sort of leaden, leathery trudge through poor old Ludwig that one might have thought nigh-on forty years of historically-informed performance practice would have eradicated for good (but evidently not). The LPO however plainly adores him – possibly almost as much as he adores himself, with his endless three-quarters profile, out-to-the-audience posturing – and played well throughout. But Fleming was, and remains, the thing.
Photograph © Andrew Eccles/ Decca