wed 24/04/2024

Prom 61 review: Fleming, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Oramo - heliotropic ecstasies | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 61 review: Fleming, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Oramo - heliotropic ecstasies

Prom 61 review: Fleming, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Oramo - heliotropic ecstasies

Great American soprano complements vigorous Swedes and a Finnish master conductor

Renée Fleming and Sakari Oramo - radiant teamworkAll images by Mark Allan/BBC

No sunshine without shadows was one possible theme rippling through this diva sandwich of a Prom.

Even Richard Strauss's chaste nymph Daphne, achieving longed-for metamorphosis as a tree, finds darkness among the roots; and though Renée "The Beautiful Voice" Fleming has a heliotropic tendency in her refulgent upper register, her mezzo-ish colours are strong, too. Besides, Scandinavians are always aware of transience in sunny summer days, and the outer panels of this curious programme were fine-tuned to that.

The opener - "parking-lot music" as another Swedish composer, Anders Hillborg, wryly described the slot - was a contemporary one-day butterfly of the all-background, where's-the-main-event variety, a bit of a wasted opportunity. In Liguria (2012), Stockholm-born Andrea Tarrodi gave us her impressions of the "cinque terre" way along the Ligurian coast. A colossal storm had washed away some of the hillside when I walked it, so the big thrash at the beginning was not as anti-Italian as some might have thought. Then we waited for a happening; a four-note pattern in the cor anglais seemed to promise it. But not much else; a haze, splashes of colour, a bit of fatuous beach-play led by the xylophone. Well done by Sakari Oramo and the Swedish players; one of those pieces where musicologists talk about the "sound-world" because there's not much else to it. Sakari OramoCarl Nielsen, on the other hand, never loses his grip for a moment in the Second Symphony - "Four Temperaments," but all belonging to the Geminian composer. I've always loved Nielsen's description of his dreamy younger self, lazing by the harbour on a sunny day, in the phlegmatic lolloping of the second movement. The first is a whirlwind of choleric entertainment tinged by optimism, the third a towering hymn to melancholia always magnificently shaped by Sakari Oramo (pictured above).

His real coup - and there's no surer-footed conductor of Nielsen alive today, as the cycle of symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra richly showed - is to make total sense of the tricky finale: all bluster until it, too, hits the reef of melancholy and emerges in a wiser march-vein startlingly akin to Elgar in cheekier Pomp and Circumstance mode - a difficult ending with which to convince, but Oramo nails it. His Stockholm players are slightly less stout and steaky than the BBCSO - violins wiry rather than fully impassioned - but the orchestra's horns are magnificent, its woodwind unusual, especially the very feminine first oboe, and lower colours always keenly etched.

The wind made their presence subtly felt, too, in the pastorals of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and the epilogue of Strauss's Daphne, where the maiden's rooting to the spot is eerily conveyed by the darker instruments. Fleming wasn't exactly kitted out for James Agee's summer-evening nostalgia - gingham might have been more apt than the glittering gown and wrap - and her opulence was an unusual choice for the piece's essential simplicity (anyone remember Dawn Upshaw, a very different American voice?) But her presence is always sympathetic, the way she engages with the orchestra and seems to enjoy their playing charming. So she carried it off, and if not many of the words were clear from where I was sitting, that's a known Albert Hall anomaly. Barber's best-loved song, "Sure on this shining night", made a simple, essential first-half encore.Fleming and Oramo The second-half bonne bouche was Strauss's "Morgen!", with one of the orchestra's three concert masters, Andrej Power, as the chief principal singer; and if it showed briefly how Fleming now has to work harder to support softer singing these days, it made the perfect poetic complement to what for me is his most moving operatic finale. Daphne's quiet curtain is a perfect meditation in which the soprano vanishes after her upward-reaching ecstasy, only to be heard from within the body of the tree, duetting with oboe and harp while strings buzz around the laurel. Mythological heaven, and on this evidence it shouldn't be the last we're hearing of Fleming as the often ideal Strauss soprano.


In what way is the first oboe "very feminine"?

As an oboist myself, I've always made a distinction between the beefier sound of Maurice Bourgue, say, and what I think of a more feminine sound, ie more delicate and sinuous. Is that sexist of me? What would you suggest, as a master wordsmith, as a better alternative?

No, I don't think it's sexist - I was genuinely intrigued as to what a real expert in the matter meant by attributing so strong a gender characteristic to an instrumental sound.

Thank you, I'm genuinely honoured by the attention. At the risk of digressing beyond the bounds of a public dialogue, I've always been curious whether you had anyone in mind when in The Line of Beauty you wrote about the 'sharp young man...comparing recordings of Ein Heldenleben on "Building a Library" '. Anyway, I chuckled, and it's rare to find a novelist getting musical references right, let alone making them pertinent.

May I just remind you that Sebastian Fagerlund is a Finnish composer. Cf.

Ouch. Should have checked. Because so many premieres of his works have been and are taking place in Sweden, I took the name too much for granted. Shall remove that. He still hasn't figured at the Proms, though; it's high time.

Just to add that Barber's song is actually called "Sure on this shining night" and, yes, it was beautifully sung.

Thanks, know it well - was just thinking of the clarity. Corrected.

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