It is nowadays a rite of passage, for singers who wish to be taken seriously, to demonstrate their talents with a recital of Schubert lieder. (It is also a safe investment for a record company in this the Schubert bicentenary year.)
Fleming certainly doesn't take many chances with her choice of material, starting off with two of the most popular of all of Schubert's songs, and barely testing our patience with the fifteen-minute "Viola" towards the end of the program.
It is difficult to find fault with Fleming's voice, a powerful and flexible instrument capable of beautiful sound and able to convey great depth of feeling. Her intonation is flawless. And when she takes care to apply a light touch to the more delicate turns, in "Wild Rose" for example, it is indeed a pleasure.
Her dramatic instincts are well suited to the stress of "Die junge Nonne," with its stormy background and passionate text, or to Gretchen. In both songs, the drama comes across well. The results are exciting. In other contexts the same qualities that work well in these examples are applied too forcefully, and the result is artificial and overblown. The climaxes in the slower songs are carried with a lot of vocal tension, which is unnecessary and sometimes unpleasant.
Most egregious are the bizarre agogics which Eschenbach (I assume it's his idea) applies to what must be the most perfect of all Schubert's songs: "Auf dem Wasser zu singen." Instead of allowing the accompaniment to ripple and shimmer, gently, he creates huge waves that leave this listener somewhat queasy and very disappointed.
In other places, the tempo is simply much too slow. "Ave Maria" is not meant to be a dirge, as these performers apparently think, and "Im Frühling" drags, as does the other spring song, "Frühlingsglaube."
I am left with the general impression that Fleming hasn't taken the time to listen to the very fine Schubert singing of such artists as Irmgard Seefried and Janet Baker, to name just two of the wide range of interpreters who seem to understand this music very well. Marian Anderson's "Ave Maria" is beautiful for its simplicity and lack of affectation. The same can be said for Heinrich Schlusnus, whose singing is so straightforward and unaffected as to be almost deadpan. That kind of clarity serves Schubert especially well. This music both deserves and rewards the trust of the performers, and it is distressing to see it pushed and pulled for no good reason.
On balance, this recital is not so much embarrassing as disappointing. Fleming has built up a considerable reputation in the last few years, and I was looking forward to this disc. I don't think it will hurt Fleming's operatic career, but I also do not expect to hear more lieder from this team in the near future.
Copyright © 1997, Paul Geffen