Renée Fleming: "Poèmes"
Music by Ravel, Messiaen, Dutilleux. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Gilbert; Orchestra National de France, Ozawa. Texts and translations, Decca 478 3500
The fact that Elliott Carter, at the age of one hundred three, continues to write exciting music has tended to obscure the fact that Henri Dutilleux, ninety-six, is still an active contributor to the repertoire. Dutilleux's body of work, much smaller than Carter's, is slim in the area of vocal music, so it is a pleasure to report that Renée Fleming has recorded two Dutilleux pieces for this collection. Moreover, with the second of them, Le Temps l'Horloge, Fleming has set down some of the most incisive singing she has put on record. Dutilleux's musical structures have often been said to show a Proustian sense of the flexibility of time (sometimes by the composer himself), and the choice of texts makes this especially true here. The first two poems are by Jean Tardieu, inspiring some Ravel-style vocal lines for Fleming, while the third is by Robert Desnos. The latter brings out a rare direct and unguarded quality in Fleming's vocalism. The final poem, "Enivrez-vous," is another contribution to the ever-growing body of musical settings of Baudelaire, an intoxicated waltz-like piece that ends in speech-song. A very large orchestra is used with great refinement, and there is the unexpected acidic tinge of the accordion, purged of all its associations with popular music, to portray a ghostly shadow.
Conductor Seiji Ozawa captures the rapturous qualities of Le Temps l'Horloge with offhand assurance. The recording is taken from a live performance in Paris in 2009. The remainder of the program, which includes two of Dutilleux's Trois Sonnets de Jean Cassou, is conducted by Alan Gilbert. When Gilbert began his tenure at the New York Philharmonic in fall 2009, he invited Fleming to sing Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi on his inaugural concert. On that occasion, Fleming was often inaudible in the hall, particularly when faced with Messiaen's distinctive woodwind writing. This recording, a studio version, offers a chance to hear how she sings the songs, but the price is a distractingly artificial balance of voice to orchestra. Oddly, "Épouvante," the song to which she is least suited, comes off well here with the electronic boost, but there is still something of a packaged feel rather than the necessary primal one. Yet some of the songs to which her voice is better suited fall victim to a generalized, default mode of expression. When Messiaen writes "avec charme" in the vocal line, it comes out droopy; when he writes "gracieux," it comes out droopy. In "Le collier," instead of Gallic clarity we get a hedging of bets. Gilbert provides the necessary enveloping ambience in the first song, the lock-step rhythms of "Épouvante" and the relentless ecstatic release of the final "Prière exaucée."
This collection opens with the least colorful performance of Ravel's Shéhérazade in my experience. It is clear that Fleming is seeking an enraptured quality for the vocal line, but the effect comes across as suffering instead. The images in the text of "Asie" are kaleidoscopic, but Fleming's narrator sounds like a woman who will always be pining away over her travel books rather than one who can't wait to get out and have these experiences herself. Gilbert remains becalmed in the harbor. The great orchestral moments — the path of a sail like a giant bird's wing across the golden sky, the impossibly slow, expectant pulsing in "L'indifférent" — pass for little. Gilbert has now spent a few seasons enlivening standard repertoire at the Philharmonic, and I've never heard him allow a piece to sag in this manner. Clearly, he has either been undermined by the editing of this recording, which flattens the dynamic range of the orchestra out into an "accompaniment," or he has deferred to Fleming's interpretation of the piece.
Fleming, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Jessye Norman before her, has been attracted to the seeming "perfection" of the studio product, but on the basis of Le Temps l'Horloge she should more often fight that instinct and make her recordings in live performances.
Recordings and symphonic concerts nowadays all have titles, usually silly and pointless ones. There is more justification for this one, "Poèmes," than most, but an opportunity was missed. Poulenc set the same Desnos poem, "Le dernier poème," that Dutilleux used. It would have made a lovely prelude or postlude (or both) to this collection.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN