Renée Fleming: Distant Light
The disc’s charismatic title comes from a line in the first song of The Strand Settings – evocative in its way, but not something that prepares you for the music that follows. No matter. There’s no wrong reason to lure listeners into Anders Hillborg’s four song cycle, which was premiered by Fleming with the New York Philharmonic in 2013 to the sort of instant acclaim that greeted Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs (for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) and Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you (for Barbara Hannigan). All three pieces share a complete sureness in their respective musical identities – no gimmicky effects, no quotations from the past, just going to the poetic essence of the text at hand.
Drawn from poet Mark Strand’s meditations on grief, The Strand Settings share a Nordic spareness with late Sibelius but use that manner in personal, candid ways that examine the pain of abandonment with resignation rather than histrionics, reaching beyond mere heartbreak and into existential crisis. Some moments have cinematic shifts in instrumental colour as the words veer between imagination and hallucination, and go from night-time darkness to bleach-out sunlight.
But what sets The Strand Settings temperamentally apart from Hillborg’s also lyrical …lontana in sonno… (2002) is the third song, which lands in the angular, rhythmically vital world of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and then morphs into hybrid jazz for Strand’s poetic evocations of street prostitutes described as soiled angels. But it’s here that the cycle courageously explores the hormonal overdrive that’s a side effect of grief – and where it can take you. The fourth song’s nostalgia completes the dramatic arc, as much as such matters can ever be resolved. Fleming is in her best voice for Hillborg, sometimes digging into her lower range with great effect but also resorting to breathy mannerisms to characterise awed disbelief at the visions at hand. As with later Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recordings, though, the mannerisms are undeniably effective.
The question is how to build a full compact disc programme around The Strand Settings. Barber’s Knoxville, with James Agee’s literal descriptions of pre-First World War America, is awfully quaint in comparison – not helped by Fleming’s middling interpretative commitment. Most Knoxville performances either draw from dignified Eleanor Steber or conversational Leontyne Price. Fleming is definitely from the former camp, partly due to the tone-heavy nature of her voice. I missed hearing more of the words and Sakari Oramo’s skilful use of sonority in the Hillborg.
With Nordic genes in common, Björk songs might seem to be a more natural fit. But she is mostly a miniaturist, while Hillborg is anything but. Intentionally, I avoided comparing Fleming’s performances with Björk’s if only because Fleming has to make sense on her own terms. ‘Virus’ is a bit calculated and emotionally inauthentic. But Fleming finds much to connect with in the rhapsodic repetitions of ‘Jóga’. ‘All is Full of Love’ benefits from overdubbing: Fleming seems to be everywhere at once, with rather intoxicated effect. The digital bonus track, ‘Undo’, with its expansively repeated lyrics ‘It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill’, has Fleming adopting Björk’s splintered approach toward words; surprisingly, it sits more readily alongside Hillborg. As a collection of music, this haphazard disc asks if Hillborg, alone, is worth the price. Yes it is.