Fleming bests Strauss' requirements

Fine Arts

September 28, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Richard Strauss' lifelong love affair with the soprano voice expresses itself most beautifully in the gracious operatic heroines he created for "Der Rosenkavalier" (the Marschallin), the title character of "Arabella," "Capriccio" (Countess Madeleine) and in his "Four Last Songs."

The requirements for this music are a radiant (rather than a ringing) top; womanly, almost seductive, warmth in the middle register; and abilities to soar and to float legato phrases while retaining textual clarity. And those are just the basics. Added to all this must be enough musical intelligence to drive the composer's phrases and his librettists' texts into a listener's heart.

The singer who currently best embodies these qualities is American Renee Fleming. It's little wonder, therefore, that the Decca label is pushing Fleming's just-released "Strauss Heroines," in which she sings some of the greatest scenes from "Rosenkavalier" (the Marschallin's Monologue from Act I and the trio, with Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham, from Act III), the duet from Act I of "Arabella" (with Bonney) and the closing scene from "Capriccio."

She is accompanied by Christoph Eschenbach, leading the Vienna Philharmonic, and the good news -- there is none that is bad -- is that this album is perhaps even more beautiful than the Fleming-Eschenbach collaboration a few seasons back that produced the most memorable version of "The Four Last Songs" since that of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and George Szell in the early 1960s.

As a Strauss interpreter, Fleming will inevitably be compared to Schwarzkopf, but the 40-year-old American more closely resembles the Swiss soprano Lisa della Casa. There is the same combination of physical beauty, a magnetic stage presence, a creamy soprano and the intriguing aura of mystery that makes Strauss' heroines such fascinating creatures.

Schwarzkopf, of course, had these same qualities, too, in addition to a captivating seductive quality that a few listeners found mannered. But if Fleming is a less subtly shaded Strauss interpreter, she surpasses her great predecessor in her tireless grace, firm focus and floating tone. And she possesses a forthcoming warmth that can make Schwarzkopf seem contained and cold by comparison.

Many of Eschenbach's tempos may strike listeners as being on the slow side -- indeed, they are the slowest this listener has ever heard. But his tempo choices seamlessly support Fleming, every instrumental detail falls effortlessly into place, and the music builds logically and inevitably toward every climax. With Fleming at the absolute peak of her powers, let's hope that she and Eschenbach get the opportunity to record complete versions of "Rosenkavalier," "Arabella" and anything else by Strauss as soon as possible.

CD from promising soprano

Young singers usually first encounter Strauss through his lieder, and this is the case with Hyunah Yu, who sings three of the composer's art songs, along with music ranging from Mozart to Poulenc and Schubert to Debussy, on her just-released recital recording, "A Celebration of Song" (Norae Records).

It's always a pleasure to catch a rising star. The 30-year-old, Korean-born soprano is still a student at Peabody, but she is already a lyric-coloratura soprano of genuine distinction and even greater promise. Her lovely voice, with its diamond purity, will remind listeners of the young Elly Ameling.

The affecting warmth of her singing is matched by the sensitivity and concentration of her collaborator, pianist Dido Keuning. The beautifully played horn solo in Schubert's "Auf dem Stroh" is by Peter Landgren, the Baltimore Symphony's associate principal hornist. The CD is available at most local record stores.

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