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Disc review: Renee Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet


Renee Fleming

The Emerson String Quartet

Music by Berg and Wellesz

[Decca Universal]

Two stars

The good news: It’s Renee Fleming, with the Emerson String Quartet. And the CD comes in beautiful, gold-tinged Gustav Klimt packaging.

The bad news: A good part of what Fleming is singing isn’t anything anybody really wants to hear.

Egon Wellesz’s settings of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (in German translation) sounds intriguing, but it’s all not only abstract but dislikable. Scholars can go ahead and explain why it’s worth hearing, but all most listeners will hear is Fleming valiantly trying to sell boring, jarring vocal lines while the Emerson String Quartet, talents similarly wasted, saw away unattractively in the background. Wellesz was one of Schoenberg’s prize pupils, no surprise there.

The album ends, rather aptly, with a piece titled “Come, Sweet Death.” This brief lament is the one thing on the album I liked – loved, even. You can hear the silken playing for which the Emerson String Quartet is famous, and the melody line, while abstract, is beautiful. Rounding out the disc is Berg’s 12-tone “Lyric Suite,” with the addition of an alternate version of the “Largo desolato” movement arranged to include a soprano. While it makes for dense listening, at least the Berg has a juicy story behind it. The “Lyric Suite” was a memento of an affair that Berg had, and it includes references to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” as well as heavy breathing and various other tumult. Performances of the “Largo desolato” with a vocalist are relatively rare.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

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