Fleming, MET Orchestra soar in Strauss

Mon May 23, 2016 at 1:39 pm
Renée Fleming performed songs of Richard Strauss with the MET Orchestra Sunday at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Andrew Eccles

Renée Fleming performed songs of Richard Strauss with the MET Orchestra Sunday at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Andrew Eccles

The Metropolitan Opera’s season is over, but MET Orchestra concerts at Carnegie are ongoing, and turning out to be a final highlight of the 2015-16 year in music. The presence in the pit of one of the world’s great orchestras is one of the assets that sets the Metropolitan Opera apart from peers, and the opportunity to hear that orchestra play great concert music, even for just a handful of concerts, is an annual privilege.

On Sunday, in the second of this year’s concert series, the program was devoted entirely to the music of Richard Strauss, who was equally at home composing for the stage or for the concert hall. The tone poem Don Juan was a flashy start to the afternoon, a strikingly crisp rendition that clearly demonstrated the orchestra’s superior technical facility in this challenging music. One might have wished for a bit more care in the balancing of some sections, but David Robertson brought clarity to the piece through his precision of musical gesture, executing tight crescendos and ritardandos, and coaxing a generous, shining sound from the orchestra.

The star attraction for Sunday’s concert was Renée Fleming, whose long association with the Met needs little introduction. Some of her recent performances have raised concerns about the condition of her voice, but this program featured some of the best singing she has done in New York in several seasons.

Beginning with Strauss’s Four Last Songs, she showed an instrument that still has considerable color and definition; there is less volume than there once was, to be sure, but on Sunday she never pushed, allowing her voice rather to fold into the texture of the orchestra where once she might have tried to soar above it. That very restraint made her accounting of these songs uncommonly noble—she crafted natural, tasteful phrases while projecting confidence in every part of her range. She showed all the control necessary to give a stunningly placid performance of “Im Abendrot,” while Robertson and company were superb in their support, playing with pining warmth in “September.”

Fleming led off the second half of the program with a set of five songs, a survey of Strauss’s oeuvre stretching from 1897 to 1933 (all the way to 1948, if you count the orchestrations). “Meinem Kinde” featured limpid playing from the principal quartet in the strings, to which Fleming added soothing lines caressed with gentle affection. In “Das Bächlein” she managed true sparkle, skipping nimbly over the cool bubbling of the orchestra. In her well-deserved encore of “Cäcelie,” she sang with fullness and conviction while the orchestra matched with enormous, swelling passion.

David Robertson. Photo: Michael Tammaro

David Robertson. Photo: Michael Tammaro

The closing bookend on the program was that concert staple Also sprach Zarathustra, which has seldom felt so fresh as it did in Sunday’s hearing. Robertson took the iconic opening motif at a surprisingly healthy clip, but the progression lost none of its dramatic tension, landing with floor-shaking power. The orchestra played with gorgeous, melting warmth in “Von der Hinterweltlern,” leading with burnished tone into the majestic, sweeping contours of “Von der großen Sehnsucht.”

Another side altogether was evident in “Das Grablied,” showing a stewing, murky depth, only to shimmer and gurgle again in “Der Genesende.” David Chan was exquisite in his Concertmaster solos, adding a touch of schmalz to his lines in “Das Tanzlied.” The closing “Nachtwanderlied” was perfectly constructed, its bounding heroism giving way to a soft haze, and then finally dissolving into perfect twilight. Such brilliant, idiomatic Straussian playing is enough to make one want to fast-forward to next April, when Fleming and the Met will be reunited for what will almost surely be their last Rosenkavalier together.

James Levine conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s final concert of the season 8 p.m.Thursday at Carnegie Hall with Christine Goerke and Stefan Vinke performing excerpts from Wagner’s “Ring.” carnegiehall.org.

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