A few of Renée Fleming's favorite things

Renée Fleming played to an adoring crowd at Symphony Hall on Sunday. Renée Fleming played to an adoring crowd at Symphony Hall on Sunday. (Dima Gavrysh/Ap/File 2006)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009
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It's not easy to make Symphony Hall feel like an intimate space, but Renée Fleming did so with her Celebrity Series recital on Sunday afternoon. On paper, it was a fairly idiosyncratic program of 20th-century works that shared little in common, from Strauss to Messiaen to John Kander. No particular agenda, no surprising links or thematic heavy lifting - just an enjoyable tasting menu of music Fleming loves and for the most part sings well.

Fleming wove it all together with informal comments from the stage, playing against her bejeweled diva image with a casual delivery style and a self-deprecating joke or two, and then capping her short program with a generous serving of encores, one of which got all of Symphony Hall singing. An adoring audience left even more so.

She opened with Andre Previn's "The Giraffes Go to Hamburg," based on an elegiac Isak Dinesen text taken from "Out of Africa" about two noble giraffes being crated and ignominiously shipped off from Kenya to Germany. Previn's melancholy setting takes on additional color from an alto flute (here, Linda Toote), but Fleming herself didn't sound entirely warmed up. Her tone became more open, resonant, and by the end, positively gleaming in the selections from Messiaen's "Poemes pour Mi," with the first song "Action des graces" rendered like an incantation building in urgency, and "Paysage" dispatched with an elegant sense of shape and shading.

Fleming sings this Messiaen well but she has not internalized its meaning and expressive essence as deeply as she has with the songs of Strauss, a composer who has long been at the center of her repertoire. The Strauss selections were easily the highlight of Sunday's recital, and the moment she launched confidently into the passionate "Verführung" on the second half she was clearly on musical home turf.

In "Winterweihe," Strauss's evocative setting of a Karl Friedrich Henckell text about an older couple closing out the hurly-burly of the world and reveling in the quiet depth of their love, Fleming found an appropriately pure and lustrous tone, though one wished at times that she allowed the simplicity of the line to come through without the distracting vocal swoops and over-italicizing. In "Zueignung" she dipped into her reserves of operatic power, thrillingly belting out the final bars - "Habe Dank!" or "Have thanks!" - into the proverbial rafters.

A pair of stylistically late-Romantic Korngold arias sat comfortably with the Strauss songs on the second half. Earlier in the recital, she offered some poignant Americana by way of Kander's setting of a famous Civil War letter from a soldier home to his wife shortly before his death in the First Battle of Bull Run. Fleming made the shift in tone and style seem completely natural.

The encores came plentifully with no pleading required, and Fleming sang, among other selections, a melting rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime" and, less persuasively, an aria from Zandonai's "Conchita." She closed with "Morgen," her signature Strauss song. The pianism of Hartmut Höll, sensitive throughout the night, here was especially eloquent, providing a sense of vast space around the notes. Fleming's voice had just the right quiet inner glow.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


At: Symphony Hall, Sunday afternoon