Renée Fleming Explores South, North, And Bjork

Mark Strand, from left, Renée Fleming, Anders Hillborg, and Alan Gilbert with the New York Philharmonic at the 2013
premiere at Carnegie Hall of Hillborg’s song cycle ‘The Strand Settings.’ (Chris Lee photo)

Renée Fleming – Distant Light. Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor). Decca 0289 483 0415 8.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — With her operatic stage career winding down, Renée Fleming is using her still-formidable voice and musical curiosity — and, presumably, her clout at Decca — to take on projects that might stretch the ears of the fans of “America’s Favorite Diva.” The last time out, the soprano collaborated with the Emerson Quartet in a program of Berg, Wellesz, and Zeisl. And now we get this imaginatively programmed CD, Distant Light, which begins in a specific place and then wanders north to wind up in an altogether different space.

The program begins innocuously enough with Samuel Barber’s lovely concert aria Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a nostalgic memoir of times gone by in Tennessee written by a sophisticated urban composer. Fleming sails through the piece in liquid voice, passionately sharing poet James Agee’s summertime memories with languorous phrasing, as opposed to the forthright approach of Eleanor Steber, who commissioned the piece. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, led by Sakari Oramo, lays down as smooth and velvety a backdrop as one would want.

Then Fleming goes figuratively north with the Swedish orchestra to sample the unique soundscapes of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg in Strand Settings, a song cycle Fleming commissioned in tandem with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Nearly five years in the making from gestation to the first performance in 2013, it’s a dazzling yet lonely-sounding setting of four poems by the late Mark Strand, the poet laureate of the U.S. in 1990-91. A passage from the first poem, “Black Sea” — “I stood in the long, / whispering night, waiting for something, a sign, the approach / of a distant light” — gives the album its name.

Hillborg: ‘shimmering sheets of orchestral sound.’ (Mats Lundqvist)

In the first, second, and fourth songs, Hillborg creates shimmering, sustained sheets of orchestral sound that seem to illustrate the northern lights; there is dissonance, but the effect is very pleasant, an orchestra almost made to sound electronic. The agitated third song adds wind instruments shooting around the landscape, a jazzy walking bass, jagged strings, and unpredictable shifts in mood. Fleming is completely inside the text, dramatizing everything.

The album ends in a remote outpost of the North, Iceland, where Fleming tries her hand at three songs (“Virus,” “Jóga,” “All Is Full of Love”) by the unclassifiable singer/songwriter Björk, all done up in orchestral arrangements by Hans Ek that are frankly more colorful and resourceful than the mostly electronic originals. Fleming, who once successfully recorded a whole album of pop covers, Dark Hope, brings out her pop voice again — the operatic timbre suppressed, but not her dramatic flair. Again, she pulls it off convincingly, her vocal range matching up closely enough with Björk’s own. Especially good is Fleming’s cover of “Jóga”; its haunting refrain, “State of emergency/How beautiful to be,” will stay with you long after the CD runs its course.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.