Fleming and Emerson Quartet convey dark poignance of Berg

Thu Sep 17, 2015 at 12:38 pm
Renee Fleming performed Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 1 with the Emerson Quartet Wednesday night at Subculture. Photo: Andrew Eccles

Renée Fleming performed with the Emerson Quartet Wednesday night at Subculture. Photo: Andrew Eccles

Having grown used to seeing her tread the boards at the Met or headline gala events with major orchestras, it was a little odd to see Renée Fleming Wednesday night at SubCulture, the hip cabaret tucked away in a Bleecker Street basement. In fact she sang for only about ten minutes of an event that featured just about a half-hour of music, all told.

To be fair, violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet, Fleming’s collaborators for the evening, noted at the start that this was a promotional event for a new CD, and apparently it was a successful one—the 7:30 performance sold out in a flash, and a 9:30 set, added in response to the demand, was near capacity, as well.

The Decca CD in question is a new album featuring these musicians in works for soprano and string quartet. The largest work on the disc that calls for all five musicians is Egon Wellesz’s set of five Sonnets for Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The focus, though, was Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, a piece with a particularly fascinating history. Written in six movements, the piece was thought to be for string quartet alone until the 1970s, when a hidden vocal line in the final movement was discovered; legal challenges have made the performance and recording of the version with soprano impossible until even more recently.

Emerson began by performing the first two movements of the suite with Fleming still in the wings. Their playing was superbly balanced—biting and energetic, they had no trouble communicating the acid that often pocks the surface of Berg’s writing, but soothed with a sublime and idiomatic sweetness. The second movement, “Andante amoroso,” was played with entrancing focus.

The players took a break for an excerpt from a forthcoming documentary about the Berg work featuring the evening’s artists. Lyric Suite: A Musical Love Story, by Hilan Walsh, who describes himself as “a filmmaker with a musical background,” explores the biographical details of Berg’s Lyric Suite, which was a cryptic paean to the composer’s mistress, Hanna Fuchs.

Fleming joined the quartet for the final Largo desolato—a pitch-dark conclusion that begins with tiptoeing pizzicati that gather momentum before segueing into the intense longing of the vocal line. A powerful operatic voice in a two-hundred-seat theater is far from a sure thing, but Fleming’s sound was full, colorful, and confident, growing only sweeter still in the “encore” of Eric Zeisl’s “Komm, süsser Tod.”

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Financial struggles have forced SubCulture to cancel all but three dates in its 2015-16 season. Wednesday marked the second anniversary of the venue’s opening, a bittersweet mark that passed without comment during the late show.

The refurbished basement doesn’t sport the warmest acoustic in New York, but the venue and its directors have managed to carve out a valuable niche in their brief run. Presenting a mix of established and emerging artists performing a mix of standard and contemporary music—-including a superb George Crumb celebration last season and a concert in league with the NY Phil Biennial in June 2014— SubCulture took no time at all in making its presence felt in New York’s musical scene, and seemed to be headed for great things.

Plans are in the works to add more performances in the new year, but for now the future is murky.


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