EIF: Renee Fleming & Hartmut Holl

Old College Quad

That German pianist Hartmut Holl was in traditional full fig of white tie and tails seemed only appropriate. We are so used to hearing fine young voices, especially sopranos, that – if Renee Fleming will forgive the ungallant observation – one that is older, and run-in, comes as a welcome treat.

That, however, was only a small part of the truth of this varied and delightful recital, presented with all the conversational aplomb you would expect. Yes, there was Richard Strauss, the composer Fleming described as “the great love of my musical life” and whose Four Last Songs she will perform next week at Austria’s Grafenegg Festival with the Filarmonica della Scala di Milano. There was more theatre in her performance of a pair of his songs, Muttertandelei and Waldseligkeit, than in anything that had gone before, and she also bowed out with him, the last of three encores.

Elsewhere, however, she was happily exploring new ground, some of which will feature on a forthcoming album, themed on the consolations of the natural world that helped so many of us over the past year and a half. After Handel provided a prayer of thanksgiving and a meditation, her selection of Faure songs were all pinnacles in his vast catalogue: the ominous Prison, and the ambiguous Les berceaux, which puns darkly on the word “cradles” in a way that makes equal sense in English, with lighter fare of Reve d’amour and Au bord de l’eau framing the group.

Three of Grieg’s Opus 48 Sechs Lieder followed, somewhat surprisingly her first performances of them. The gravitas she brought to the last of them, Ein Traum, belied that recent acquaintance, while Zur Rosenzeit, which precedes it, might have been written with her voice and personality in mind.

That was certainly true of Evening, by contemporary American composer Kevin Puts, setting a poem by Dorianne Laux. Puts is the composer of a new opera version of Michael Cunningham’s modernist novel The Hours, which became a Stephen Daldry-directed and Philip Glass-scored film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. Fleming returns to the stage of the New York Met for the opera’s premiere next year, and this fine new song is a spin-off from that relationship. It was followed by a version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now that boasted a lovely piano arrangement for Holl, and made the argument for the demolition of boundaries in music-making without the singer needing to say a word.

Keith Bruce