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Renée Fleming premieres André Previn's first-rate new song cycle

David Patrick Stearns, Music Critic

Updated: Monday, October 16, 2017, 2:45 PM

Singer Renee Fleming. Credit: Andrew Eccles/Decca

Renée Fleming’s recital was defined by its opening minutes. Before singing at all, the superstar soprano received a standing ovation on Sunday at the Kimmel Center. Success was simply handed to her. “Save another one for the end,” she quipped.

As a seasoned pro, she delivered an inventive, substantial recital — including an André Previn premiere and songs by a forgotten composer named Egon Kornauth — that would have been better in a smaller space than Verizon Hall and with a more reader-friendly program book that offered song translations.

But, at 58, she was in good voice, exuded unforced charisma that made the atmosphere cozier, and generally created an evening where lack of details — both in the presentation and in her singing — mattered less, from the opening set of Brahms songs to a particularly touching encore that was a tribute to her recently deceased friend, Broadway/cabaret star Barbara Cook. The song was one of Cook’s signatures, “Till There Was You,” an anthem for those who leave the world more beautiful.

Fleming’s typical pitfalls were at a minimum. Her famously creamy tone did overwhelm the words, but mostly in a partly cloudy set of French songs that was also plagued by approximate pitch, including high notes that missed their mark to one extent or another. Younger singers wouldn’t get away with this, but Fleming does because experience yields a greater grasp of the music’s intent. That matters most in the end.

Medium-voltage lack of engagement has been a more serious problem in recent years; she kept that at bay with a program that was not a retrospective and that kept her in less-familiar territory. Even the arias that ended the program were from an opera she sang only once, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, reprised because she hasn’t had enough of it. Though not a great idea for a recital’s end — the arias are discursive and lose much in a piano reduction — they inspired Fleming’s most articulate, dramatically detailed, text-attentive singing. And that’s what we were there for.

The cycles by Previn and Kornauth complemented each other. Previn’s Lyrical Yeats cycle was distinguished by distilled, concentrated vocal lines and extremely spare accompaniment.

Kornauth (1891-1959) was born in Moravia but lived in Austria; his Lieder von Eichendorff Op. 37 had fairly typical post-romantic vocal lines but with piano writing (imagine Debussy meets Strauss) that contained the bulk of the the poetic content. Pianist Inon Barnatan, a major plus throughout this concert, gave the songs an imposing sweep that’s lacking (to judge from German radio archives) in the composer’s own more-Mozartean playing. Maybe that’s one reason Kornauth needs rescuing.

Previn’s Lyrical Yeats cycle belongs in a more intimate setting. The composer’s highly personal, sometimes-conversational vocal lines insist on being enjoyed at closer range than this large-hall recital allowed. They’re nothing fancy: A great fan of Irish literature in general and W. B. Yeats in particular, Previn believes in setting one syllable to each note — no coloratura ever — with music that here zeroed in on the essential content, especially in “Brown Penny” and “When You Are Old.” Only “The Fiddler of Dooney” had anything so obvious as a Celtic accent (and then only a slight one).

Also, Previn delights in trick endings that take you to unexpected places, but not for the sake of novelty. Though sentimentality makes me want to say that he’s writing some of his best music at 88, I really do believe — in the case of Lyrical Yeats — it’s true.

David Patrick Stearns, Music Critic

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