Renée Fleming is a fan of the maverick jazz pianist/composer Brad Mehldau, and thanks to her Carnegie Hall commissioned this pair of song-cycles. Mehldau is a deep thinker when it comes to compositional technique and structure. Thus, while at first hearing it may seem that there’s little or no tone-painting in the selections from The Blue Estuaries (based on poems by Louise Bogan), further listening reveals subtle associations. In “Tears in Sleep”, for example, the vocal line slides over slippery harmonies, suggesting dreamy restlessness.
Mehldau’s setting of poems from Rilke’s early, angst-ridden collection The Book of Hours is more overtly descriptive. The desolate, chiming piano part of “Your first word was light” is an ideal foil for the soprano’s tortured entreaties. In “I love you, gentlest of ways”, the spare, hymn-like opening becomes quietly awesome, underlining the sudden weight of the line “you, the forest that always surrounded us”. The bluesy, syncopated character of “I love the dark hours of my being” may come as a surprise, however – though as the harmonies grow more exploratory, the song begins to sound like an Expressionist spiritual, which is somehow apt. Love Sublime, served here as an encore, is an exquisitely melancholy mélodie that Fauré surely would have loved.
Fleming sings with plush tone and deep feeling, often sacrificing textual clarity in the process, and her swoops and swoons help bring out the connections to jazz. Her approach works, though it would be fascinating to hear this music sung in a purer, cleaner style. As for Mehldau, his playing is simply brilliant.