For somebody who came on stage dressed in what seemed to be a duvet cover, Renée Fleming made a glamorous impression at the Proms last week.
She may be coming to the end of her career – the voice is thin now, and this concert had a valedictory feel to it – but she has artistry to spare and knows, as all great singers do, how best to use what nature still allows her. So although she didn’t dazzle during Samuel Barber’s classic essay in American nostalgia – the scena for soprano and orchestra Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – there was more than enough radiance and warmth to please. And in the transformation scene from Strauss’s opera Daphne (where, to save herself from a pursuing god, the heroine turns into horticulture) the fragility was all part of the charm: a diva going gracefully into retirement, and with style.
But even more impressive in this concert – given by the Stockholm Philharmonic under Sakari Oramo – was an extraordinary British premiere from a composer new to me called Andrea Tarrodi. She’s from Sweden, but her piece, Liguria, was a response in sound to the Italian coast around the Cinque Terre, written with the most intensely colourful orchestral virtuosity I’ve heard in any new work of the past 10 years or more. It was Respighi reinvented for today. And it was breathtaking: a sonic spectacle accessible on the BBC website for anyone who missed it.
The Concertgebouw is an orchestra that carries class in its hand luggage; and when it flew over from Amsterdam to the Proms last week, it brought a decidedly superior pairing of Haydn’s Symphony No 82 (nicknamed “The Bear” for no better reason than that a drone bass in the last movement reminded 18th-century listeners of music played for dancing bears) and Mahler’s Symphony No 4.
Daniele Gatti, the Concertgebouw’s chief conductor, directed both – with a long stick sparingly deployed, as much to shape the mood and phrasing as to beat time. And in company with the preceding Haydn, the Mahler was an elegant if under-dramatised account that played down the neurosis and grotesquerie in Mahler’s sound-world (something that interpreters like Leonard Bernstein always played up, with a touch of Broadway razzmatazz), approaching the last movement’s childlike vision of the afterlife in a contained and quiet way.
That the soprano soloist, Chen Reis, was made to stand behind the orchestra rather than spotlit at the front was no doubt part of the containment plan, but it made her feel a long way off and slightly hard to hear. The glistening beauty of the voice was captivating and I wish we’d had it thrust at us more forcefully.
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