After a diversion into rock territories, this finds Fleming back where she belongs.
Charlotte Gardner 2012
After Dark Hope, Renée Fleming's not-unsuccessful rock crossover album of 2010, it almost felt as if anything was possible from her. Rather wonderfully though, with its programme of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux, Poèmes is a firm return to the American Francophile diva's musical home ground. Perhaps in a way it had to be: if you've dropped your soprano in favour of husky tenor tones for Leonard Cohen's paired-down Hallelujah, where else to go but back to full lyric soprano, soaring over Ravel’s sweeping washes of erotic colour?
Four French orchestral song cycles make up this disc, in a programme that gradually travels through the 20th century up to the present day. Ravel’s Shéhérazade of 1903 is followed by Messiaen’s 1936 Poèmes pour mi. Henri Dutilleux’s Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou is a link between past and present: written for voice and piano in 1954, he has now orchestrated it especially for this recording. Then, bringing proceedings to a 21st century climax is the world premiere recording of Dutilleux’s Le temps l’horloge, written for Fleming in 2009.
This is the first time Fleming has set her interpretation of Shéhérazade to disc, and it’s been worth the wait. She revels in the storytelling every bit as much as Shéhérazade herself, her warm, voluptuous tones soaring ecstatically up into the most hedonistic climaxes, and carrying effortlessly over the orchestra even when in her softest lower-tessitura pianissimo.
The Messiaen is a different musical beast entirely. Whilst similarly inspired by romance and with the vocal part containing comparable declamatory qualities, the orchestral writing is more acerbic and powerful, often setting a real challenge for the singer in terms of being heard over the top of it. Fleming mostly triumphs, but there are occasional moments, such in the violent Épouvante, where her rounded tones don't have quite the hard-edged power to cut through the angry orchestra. However, songs like the ravishingly languorous L’Épouse, which follows smartly on its heels, make it abundantly clear why Alan Gilbert persuaded her to take the work on.
It’s the Dutilleux cycles that work best of all though, nodding as they do to all of Fleming’s vocal and expressive strengths, and sitting firmly within the tradition of her other beloved French composers. Le temps l’horlage, with its unusual inclusion of harpsichord and accordion in the orchestra, is particularly arresting, the colourful texts a perfect vehicle for Fleming’s dramatic talents, and the vocal lines themselves playing to the warmth and elasticity of her upper register.
Dark Hope was fine, but Poèmes finds Fleming back where she belongs.