Radiant Renée triumphs in both Barber and Björk

Classical: Renée Fleming: Distant Light ★★★★★

By Richard Morrison, The Times of London

Renouncing her androgynous toyboy twice weekly at the moment at the Royal Opera House (as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, I should add), the great American soprano Renée Fleming shows with this ambitious album that she is far from renouncing musical frolics. True, there’s quintessential Fleming repertoire on it — a gorgeous performance of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 — but Fleming also presents a new orchestral song cycle written especially for her: The Strand Settings, by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg.

Then there are three songs by Björk. No tame excursions into crossover, these, but superbly reimagined arrangements by another Swede, Hans Ek, that show how much stylistic overlap exists between experimental pop and postmodern classical.

Enough with the labels. What’s most important is that Fleming, who turns 58 next month, still commands the creamiest, spine-shiveringly sensuous timbre in the business. That’s evident throughout Knoxville, as is her excellent diction, an area often perceived as her weakness. I listened without recourse to a printed text and scarcely missed a word of James Agee’s wry, nostalgic evocation of a long-lost rural American paradise.

Hillborg’s new cycle also speaks of loneliness, love and despair, in this case through the words of the Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand, who died just over two years ago. There’s a much more ghostly, even ominous, atmosphere in Hillborg’s writing, though, with especially effective use of shimmering string clusters. And he also supplies a vocal line tailor made for Fleming, with opportunities galore for her to soar above the stave like some majestic ocean liner riding the gentle swell supplied by the Royal Stockholm Orchestra under Sakari Oramo.

In the booklet interview that comes with the CD edition, Fleming speaks passionately about Björk’s originality. The amazing thing about the three Björk covers she includes here — Virus, Joga and All is Full of Love (with Undo added as a digital bonus track) — is that this originality of melodic line and harmony is preserved, while the idiom is gracefully transformed into that of the romantically orchestrated art-song.

In the process Virus becomes more lilting than the original; Joga has its Scandinavian drone roots emphasised by clever instrumentation; and the gentle disco beats of All is Full of Love are sacrificed in favour of a sumptuous string background. I was transfixed by the lushness and emotional richness. Any of the three would make an apposite encore the next time Fleming sings, say, Strauss’s Four Last Songs — and I wonder if anyone in a concert-hall audience would identify the composer.