Universal Classics has an impressive roster of artists who have made treasured albums of sacred music; they include Luciano Pavarotti, Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, Andrea Bocelli, and now (predictably, given her popularity) Renée Fleming. While this is not really an album of Christmas music, its release toward the end of the calendar year (like Bocelli's Sacred Arias CD back in 1999) surely is no accident. This CD will be playing in many homes on Christmas Day. (Mine too – my father will be getting one as a present!)
The target audiences are Fleming's fans and less demanding listeners, not mopey cusses who concern themselves with matters such as style and authenticity. If Fleming's Sacred Songs CD seems saccharine, that's probably by design. The beauty of the voice, the lushness of the arrangements, and the sweetness of the melodies all come together to produce the musical equivalent of a box of assorted chocolates. Most of the 15 selections are gooey to one degree or another, and some suit the individual palate more than others, but none really fail to please, as long as one remembers that the purpose of this CD is to calm and entertain, not to instruct or edify.
Most of the selections feature Fleming with orchestra. This has necessitated bringing in an arranger, Chris Hazell, for the Bach/Gounod and Schubert Ave Marias, Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, Franck's Panis angelicus, and Berlioz's "L'adieu des bergers" from L'Enfance du Christ. Hazell's arrangements and additions – for example, a flute in the Franck – have not been to everyone's liking, but frankly, they could have been far less tasteful, so I am counting my blessings. The London Voices join Fleming in the Franck, the "Domine Deus" from Poulenc's Gloria, Mozart's "Laudate Dominum" (Vesperae solennes de confessore), and the Berlioz. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham stops by to join Fleming in "Abends will ich schlafen gehen" from Hänsel und Gretel – a particularly touching performance. The last track is a setting for Fleming and violinist Mark O'Connor – no one else – of "Amazing Grace." I appreciated the simplicity of this, and Fleming gets into the folk spirit here, but it is an odd ending to a CD whose richness is operatic. Bernstein's "A Simple Song" (from his Mass) doesn't quite fit here, either.
Fleming is more interested in making beautiful sounds than in making stylistic distinctions between selections, and so the Baroque pieces are a little ponderous, but still lovely. There's not much drama, and when it comes (in the Poulenc) it sounds overdone. (It sounds as if Fleming is pleading for her life here – surely not what Poulenc had in mind!) Apart from an ungraceful slide into the very first note she sings on this CD, I found little to complain about, in terms of her vocal production. Everyone else involved in this production does a professional and committed job – they are the black velvet, and Fleming's voice is the jewel set against it. Fine engineering too. The booklet contains texts and translations, so even the least seasoned collector will be able to get the most out of this CD. It's not meant to be thought about, though – just enjoyed.
Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle