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Voices from Heaven (via the Marketing Department) [Part 1]

Two big releases for Decca are coming out this September when Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming hit stores with their respective showcase albums “Opera Proibita” (September 13th) and “Sacred Songs” (September 27th). Both discs are fine-tuned to achieve maximum popularity with programming of arias and songs that are of such irresistible beauty that it should assure appeal to all but the most ardent classical music haters.

Mme. Fleming sings an assortment of sacred arias starting with the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, then Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Schubert’s Ave Maria, a little Mozart (Laudamus te from the C minor Mass and Laudate Dominum), some Handel (including Rejoice, Rejoice), Franck’s Panis Angelicus and every other too-beautiful-for-its-own-good selection that a soprano can reasonably squeeze out of the repertoire.

I don’t want to be accused of being the modernist cynic who suspects triteness or low commercialism behind the first hint of actual beauty or someone who thinks that a C major chord after 1880 automatically qualifies a work as schlock… but having said that: I’ll take Gounod’s treatment of Bach, including the impossibly cute harp opening in stride. The work is lovely, after all. What is decidedly not lovely is Fleming’s voice. How can I write that about our most beloved American Diva whose greatness is acknowledged the world over?

Added Commentary by Charles T. Downey:

The instructor of my undergraduate music history course played a funny joke on his class when we were studying Baroque music. He introduced Johann Pachelbel and said we were going to listen to his famous composition Canon in D. He started the tape, and we heard that piece of music for about 20 seconds, when there was an explosion and the sound of people dying in agony. "That was beautiful," he said and continued his lecture as if nothing had happened. All of this is to say that there are some pieces of classical music that everyone loves, except most classical musicians who have to play it at every wedding they get hired to do. And that is to say that even Renée Fleming has to pay the bills, and so a chestnut CD in time for the Christmas season makes perfect sense.

Not that any of the pieces on Sacred Songs are necessarily really appropriate for Christmas, except through the process by which general sacred music, pieces like Schubert's Ave Maria, becomes Christmasized. That is not to say that this CD is actually packaged for Christmas sales, because it is not, but I'm sure it will be on lists for weary shoppers who will remember that they saw La Fleming on television or at a baseball game. Ka-ching.

Not to worry. La Fleming has plenty of credit here at Ionarts, because she brought Rodelinda and countertenors to the Met and champions operas like Rusalka and Daphne. Renée, we will always have Paris, no matter how many jazz and sacred schlock albums you do.

Yes, it's all here: the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria, Bach's Jesus bleibet meine Freude (from Cantata 147, and she does sing the German text for the piece usually called Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring in English: although why you would pay to hear a voice like La Fleming's sing a chorale is beyond my understanding), Handel's Dank Sei Dir, Herr (which Sarah Brightman also loves, speaking of how NPR has failed us, those hack fuckers), Franck's Panis angelicus (with a souped-up flute solo part that sounds like elevator music or the soundtrack of Disney's Sleeping Beauty). Plus, as Jens says, some tracks are off the beaten path, like the prayer from Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel (with the divine Susan Graham). Worst of all, the final track of the American version of this CD, a grotesquely saccharine rendition of the hymn tune Amazing Grace, has not only a folksy American violin accompaniment (folksy in the sense that it could also be applied to the storytelling of Ross Perot), it has the folksy stylings of Ionarts bête noire Mark O'Connor.

As of the time of this writing, this album, which will not even be released until September 27, is selling at in position #764 in Music (an improvement over #964 yesterday). I cannot believe that our criticism will dent its popularity, but here it goes. Save your money.
Well, if her Handel album wasn’t a cure for you from assuming her infallible, this one should do the trick. Mind you, it will sell hundreds of thousands of copies and be in the top 40 for months. People who ‘like’ classical music will eat this one up like manna; Prairie Home Companion listeners will jump with joy and recommend it to all their friends. But as someone who loves Mme. Fleming in Strauss and the like (I am very much looking forward to the new Daphne recording (out on September 13th) and her performance at the Kennedy Center on October 18th) I cannot stand her self-conscious, über-vibrato-infused voice when she goes into “let’s-impress-everyone” mode. It’s one of the most unnatural sounds, artificial and affected. The wobble that masquerades as vibrato turns her already round voice into mush while the increase in decibels drives home a point about her ability, not the music – much less beauty itself. To be honest: I suspected this album might be annoying to my ears after repeated listening. Sadly, it is annoying from the first notes on. If she were to reserve her super-dramatization for actually dramatic moments, it would be fine… there are enjoyable sequences where ‘all-out’ works. But it’s applied without distinction at every note that comes her way. If you ever wondered what narcissism might sound like…

available at Amazon
Sacred Songs, Renée Fleming
Her distortion of every musical phrase makes for particularly tacky moments in the opening Ave Maria and even Panis Angelicus (why even bother with the choir when she nails all of them to the wall with her voice?). I am not sure if Bernstein would have had an interpretation like hers’ in mind when he wrote his Simple Song. I want to point out works on this disc where her approach comes off better – like the Pie Jesu of Faure’s Requiem - but by that point in the listening process, eight tracks of the same singing without any variation whatsoever have already gone by and robbed me of my charitable abilities.

I suppose the Laudate Dominum withstands her mannerisms reasonably well; better, at any rate, than Poulenc’s Domine Deus. Humperdinck’s Abends will ich schalfen geh’n is actually gorgeous. While Fleming is still a bit too much, she’s toned it down by two notches for the duet. (I don’t know with whom she sings – or for that matter who any of her musical collaborators are – since I listened to a CDR without booklet and notes.) L’Adieu des Bergers is undeniably beautiful, too. French, notably, is not Mme. Fleming’s native language. Reger’s Wiegenlied appeased me to an extent – but then comes what I suppose distinguishes the “USA Version” (as is my copy) from the international release. The absolutely worst imaginable rendering of Amazing Grace that has ever polluted my ears with meandering southern fiddle and all. Unnerved by now I won’t shy away from the word “disgusting.”

Such a harsh judgment makes me feel obliged to pass this disc on to Charles who is generally more even-tempered and kindly disposed than I. (Except on Public Broadcasting, where his rants could make a sailor blush.) He’ll let you know whether I am an incorrigible, success-envying music-snob or just oversensitive. Fleming, meanwhile, should be forced to sing in a choir for half a year just so her singing reattains a modicum of even slightly natural expression.

Decca 477177

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