Notes and Editorial Reviews
Poèmes pour Mi.
2 Sonnets de Jean Cassou. Le Temps l’Horloge
Renée Fleming (sop); Alan Gilbert,
Seiji Ozawa, cond; French RPO;
French Natl O
DECCA 16543-02 (69:06
Text and Translation)
Live: Paris 5/7/2009.
A good friend of mine sent me Susanna Phillips’s new recital of French songs by Debussy, Fauré, and this same Messiaen cycle, on Bridge 9356. Since it was a recent CD, I was tempted to review it separately, but to be honest, I found Phillips to be good but not great. Part of it is her rather indifferent pianist, Myra Huang, who doesn’t sound as if she has a clue what the songs of Fauré or Debussy are about, but even in the Messiaen cycle—which is, surprisingly, much better than the older fare—Phillips is just good. She has a nice, bright soprano voice, not really cookie-cutter but not highly distinctive either, yet it is only in
Poèmes pour Mi
that she seems to come to life.
Putting on Renée Fleming immediately after is like going from a black-and-white, two-dimensional photo to 3-D digital color. Nor is it just that conductor Alan Gilbert does a much better job of accompanying Fleming, though he does. To begin with, Fleming has the immeasurably better, richer, and more interesting voice; she employs that extraordinary voice in a performance that has both musical accuracy and true emotional depth; and, moreover, Fleming seems to have internalized Messiaen’s songs to the point where she doesn’t just know them or understand them, but somehow “sees” what the composer saw in his mind when composing them.
In short, this is an extraordinary feat, but it is not—as it is in the Phillips recital—an isolated high point. Her performances of the Dutilleux material (
Le Temps l’Horlage
with Ozawa is the premiere performance) and the Ravel
retain the magical spell of the Messiaen. I saw Fleming, on TV, perform the Ravel cycle roughly a decade ago with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Andrew Davis. At that time, Fleming could blow hot or cold interpretively, and I knew that it would take a great conductor—someone of Davis’s high abilities—to draw a great performance out of her. He did so. Yet this studio recording directed by Alan Gilbert is, if I may be so immodest to say so, not only greater but perhaps the greatest recording of this orchestral song cycle ever put on disc. True, the Fleming voice was younger and fresher a decade ago, but just listen to the extraordinary range of colors she employs in this cycle. It is, in some ways, a slightly darker range of hues, ochres and sepias compared to the blues and silvers of yore, but they are used with the skill of a master painter. Never in my life have I heard a performance so affecting, so rich, so artistically done down to the last demisemiquaver.
This is, quite simply, an extraordinary disc. I’ll go further: This is desert-island material.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley