ALBUM TITLE: Distant Light
WORKS: Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Hillborg: The Strand Settings; Björk (arr. Ek): Virus; Jóga; All is Full of Love
PERFORMER: Renée Fleming (soprano); Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
CATALOGUE NO: 483 0415
This short disc’s triumph? Clearly it is Anders Hillborg’s The Strand Settings, four atmospheric settings of plain-worded poems of love, loneliness and loss by the Canadian poet Mark Strand, composed for the creamy soprano of Renée Fleming. Premiered in 2013, the piece already seems a classic with its declamatory vocal ardour, orchestral finesse, and communicative confluence of styles, from tinkling minimalism to a snatch of mock Handel. As she soars upwards on words like ‘stars’ and ‘freedom’ – Hillborg’s not afraid of the obvious – Fleming’s top register seems as golden as ever, even if touches of tarnish show below.
Unhappily, vices predominate in her account of Barber’s poetic masterpiece Knoxville. Never a queen of precise diction, Fleming smudges too many of James Agee’s evocative words. The built-in vibrato plays its part, robbing her voice of the intimate domestic tone required for these musings on childhood. Oramo and his Stockholm musicians couldn’t be more loving; that apart, Fleming’s version offers no competition for the historic glories of Eleanor Steber, Eileen Farrell and Leontyne Price or, more recently, Dawn Upshaw.
Fleming appears equally misplaced as classical music’s conduit for songs by the Icelandic sprite Björk, respectfully orchestrated here by Hans Ek. Virus, bubbling like the original with gamelan-like sonorities, offers the most fun. But pleasures then shrink; texts turn monotonous (Jóga repeats ‘emergency’ 13 times). And Fleming’s emotings, delivered mostly in her lower register, push into absurdity material that seemed much more sensible when delivered in Björk’s unique voice, so bleached and otherworldly.