As part of Carnegie Hall’s “Great Singers” series, the American soprano Renée Fleming headlined a matinée recital on January 23 that also featured the Emerson String Quartet, the pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and the actress Uma Thurman. One will not be surprised to learn that Stern Auditorium was filled with an eager audience half an hour before the stars took to the stage.
The Emerson String Quartet has been playing together—with only rare changes in membership—since forming as a student group at Juilliard in 1976. They have announced that they will retire at the end of the summer of 2023, bringing a close to nearly a half-century of music-making. Their performance this afternoon harked back to their 1993 Grammy Award–winning interpretation of the American composer Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11 (1936). Barber’s Opus 11 leads a curious double life: the opus number refers to both the String Quartet in B Minor and the much-beloved Adagio for Strings. As a concert piece, the latter has been a crowd-pleaser since its 1938 debut by Arturo Toscanini, and it has remained deeply ingrained upon the American psyche ever since it was played to mark the deaths of both Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Yet it originated as the second movement of the B-Minor String Quartet. It is a rare treat to hear the Adagio—with its moving, Renaissance-like polyphony—set in its original context as the center of Barber’s triptych, in which the first and last panels are modern, tempestuous, and frequently atonal sonata-allegri.
The Emerson Quartet approached the Barber Quartet with their usual fluency—a mark of their professional camaraderie—and delivered a captivating performance. Why do I note their “camaraderie”? It is much easier to deliver a compelling performance with musicians one knows well and with whom one frequently plays. Performing a piece of music is not simply a matter of playing the correct notes at the proper time. In the case of the small ensemble, an intimate understanding of not only a work of music but also of one another's thinking and playing is needed to deliver an effective performance.
The Quartet held to their 1993 precedent in interpreting the second movement at a more nimble pace (around seven minutes) than even Toscanini (ca. 7:15) or Charles Munch (ca. 7:45). The Adagio has the tendency to become an overwrought larghetto in the hands of some (Bernstein’s ten-minute slogs with the Los Angeles and the New York Philharmonics come to mind). Their comparably spritely interpretation did not detract from the integrity of the Adagio; rather, it allowed the movement to speak more clearly than those lethargic performances that can slur the piece’s natural language.
The pianist Simone Dinnerstein followed, playing Philip Glass’s Mad Rush (1979). There is something about the piece’s repetitive structure—a primary theme built around two-note patterns and a secondary one of sixteenth-note runs—that resonates with many listeners. For others, the piece can be woefully monotonous on piano, lacking the variegated tonality that it has when performed on the organ—it was originally composed and debuted on the Aeolian-Skinner at New York’s St. John the Divine—or the maturity and complexity of Glass’s beautiful piano études (1994–95; 2012). Dinnerstein's agility and command over her instrument, as well as her artfully subtle juxtapositions of the piece's themes, pulled me in and brought the work into new light.
After intermission, Dinnerstein returned to the stage with the lady of the evening, Renée Fleming, for five songs. The soprano addressed the crowd to say how happy she was to return to the stage for the first time in nearly two years and to remark on the five songs she was about to sing, each of which appear on a new album with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on piano (Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene, Decca, 2021). The album, she explained, was conceived after time spent at her Virginia country home reflecting on the way nature inspired Romantic poets and composers. While Fleming has been a devoted interpreter of Romantic vocal music throughout her career, she now finds deeper meaning in it as a corrective for the frequent alienation of contemporary society and art from the natural world.
Though Fleming’s voice has changed since the 1990s and early 2000s—take a listen to her powerful performance in the title role of Dvořák’s Rusalka with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Czech Philharmonic (Decca, 1998)—she has adapted gracefully to this more mature sound. Though the first lied Fleming sang, Grieg’s “Lauf der Welt,” Op. 48, No. 3 (1888), felt weak—so much so that her enunciation was sometimes muddled beyond comprehension—the next four songs were delivered with clarity and strength that complimented the singer’s voice and the pieces mutually. Two chansons by Fauré were particularly stunning: in “Les berceaux,” Op. 23, No. 1 (1879), Fleming sang every note in the piece’s broad range, from low A to high F, with confidence, grace, and astute dynamism; and her lyrical voice was a happy companion to the rising and falling melody of the romantic “Au bord de l’eau,” Op. 8, No. 1 (1875). She closed the song section of the recital with “Evening” (2021), a setting of Dorianne Laux’s melancholic poem of the same name that was set to music for Fleming by Kevin Puts. Puts is currently working on an opera based on Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours to debut at the Metropolitan Opera next season with Fleming in the role of Clarissa Vaughan, one of the lead characters. If this piece can be taken as evidence of his aptitude in writing for Fleming’s voice, the forthcoming opera should be something to anticipate eagerly.
The second half of the recital saw the New York debut of a “monodrama” for voice, piano, and string quartet written for Fleming by the late André Previn with words by the playwright Tom Stoppard. Previn was writing Penelope when he died in 2019; it was “realized” from many pages of unnumbered score by his longtime editor and friend, David Fetherolf, with the assistance of Fleming, Dinnerstein, and the Emerson Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker. Stoppard’s libretto follows a time-worn tradition by taking a mythological figure as subject, the character of Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey. Though all involved have billed it as a monodrama, this isn’t quite the case: the character of Penelope is divided between a soprano (Fleming) and a narrator (the actress Uma Thurman). This division of Penelope’s character between vocalist and narrator felt somewhat arbitrary in spots, though it periodically provided some comic relief: the part of the soprano tends to be poetic, serious, and dutiful, while the narrator, at times, interrupts with that sly, intrusive humor of the subconscious that often interrupts our own attempts at narrative cohesion. At one point, Penelope—in the voice of the soprano—sang of Odysseus as “my comfort, my rapture, my dear son’s dearer father,” only to be interrupted by the narrator’s frankness: “Bastard! What are you doing all this time?” Musically, the strongest part of the composition is the instrumentation, and there are nice moments for both the quartet and the piano. For a score written “for” Fleming’s voice, however, it certainly did not highlight her instrument in any memorable way. One doubts that the piece has “staying power”; though it is not, on the whole, offensive to the ears, neither is it particularly edifying as music.