The night was always going to belong to Renée Fleming. A work in each half of the programme usually signifies star status, and Fleming certainly has that. The American lyric soprano has more or less conquered the world over the last few years, but to make her Proms debut singing Strauss's Four Last Songs in the very hall where they were first heard, well, that made for an occasion even her publicists might not have dreamt up. With her was the hugely talented pianist-turned-conductor Christoph Eschenbach with whom she recorded the Strauss. They work well together. They breathe well together. They are effectively a musical item. And all the world wants Eschenbach, too. He's just snared the big job in Philadelphia.
So the sense of occasion alone put this Prom way up there among the most sought- after of the season. But did the music-making live up to the anticipation? An emphatic "yes" must be qualified with a niggling "but". One complains so often about brilliance and technique taking precedence over spirit in today's music world that it is always refreshing, sometimes disarming, to be confronted with artists for whom artistry has as much to do with style as substance.
Fleming's reading of Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate boldly reminded us, lest we forget, that this wholly delightful work once had the words "operatic showpiece" written all over it. This was a star performance such as one might have heard aeons ago, so artful, so knowing, that every phrase, every melting portamento, every dovetailed dynamic nuance, every echo effect, every perfectly placed trill carried an implied "well, look what I can do" smile in the voice. Which was fine for this piece. I liked its capriciousness, its angelic cheekiness. I doubt it has enjoyed a sexier cadenza in years.
But then came the Strauss and for all that was fabulous about it, the artistry began to get in the way. The phrase "nature and nurture" took on a whole new meaning. Nature was surely nurtured here. There were times in "September" when I longed for Fleming and Eschenbach just to let go of the song, to free the phrasing from so much – too much – tender loving care.
In "Beim Schlafengehen", it was a blessed relief to hear the phrase "And my soul, unguarded, would soar free in flight", do just that, to hear Fleming's amazing breath control deployed in the service of a musical moment that didn't draw attention to the singer rather than the words and music. I wonder how many of the finely (or is that fussily?) shaded vocal nuances really carried to the far reaches of the hall? And yet there can be no mistaking the spell cast, the atmosphere wrought by a star so well and truly in the ascendant.
Eschenbach, too, contributed much to this effect, pressing the Philharmonia Orchestra to sensational effect in Dvorak's Carneval Overture, where the wonder was how much inner-detail flashed before us without seeming to draw breath. And what a smart idea to preface the Strauss songs, effectively his last words, with his first deed of derring-do: Don Juan. Eschenbach's reading was upwardly mobile in the old-fashioned sense, audacious and impetuous with over-reaching horns and an oboe solo like a "last song" waiting to happen.Reuse content