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Hartmut Höll Returns to the Kennedy Center

Hartmut Höll (left) with associate artist
In a brilliant programming coup, Washington Performing Arts Society hosted the return of German pianist Hartmut Höll to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday night. Known for his musical partnerships with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, violist Tabea Zimmermann, bass René Pape, among others, and a series of recordings with his wife, mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai, the sensitive and elegant pianist was last here for a recital in 2005, also presented by WPAS. In contrast to that more eclectic program, which combined Purcell and Handel with Berg and Schumann, this concert was centered on three composers from the turn of the 20th century: Alexander Zemlinsky, Erich Korngold, and Richard Strauss.

Höll created exotic moods in the opening set, Zemlinsky's Fünf Lieder, from drooping, melancholy themes to chromatic oscillations inspired by the mythologically flavored poetry of Richard Dehmel. He evoked the birdcalls in Heinrich Kipper's poem as set by Korngold in Das Heldengrab am Pruth, heard by the narrator in his "little garden in Bukovina" -- skittering, bitonal squawking in the treble register -- and gave a broad range of color to the reduction of the orchestral postlude to the famous Mariettas Lied, from Korngold's Die tote Stadt. The third set of pieces, a cycle by American jazz composer Brad Mehldau to the poetry of Rilke, called forth even more idioms from Höll, including rock, boogie-woogie, and Gospel. The full orchestra approximated by his hands, in the reduction of Strauss's Gesang der Apollopriesterin, was impressively broad and varied.

Höll's amiable partner was American soprano Renée Fleming, last heard in recital with Höll in 2005 and with the NSO in 2006. In all seriousness, this repertory is the music that suits Fleming's voice the best, and she sang it gorgeously. Her diction and pronunciation may not have been comprehensible at all times, and many of her mannerisms are so famous and associated with the phenomenon of The Beautiful Voice that there is little reason to hope they would ever go away. It is a voice that is elegant in the high passages, can open up to fairly full volume or be pulled back to a ribbon (absolutely radiant in Korngold's Was du mir bist?, for example), and dark and rich enough in the middle and low to accommodate the big leaps in Korngold's Sterbelied. Fleming recorded the Mehldau set on her 2006 album Love Sublime, with the composer at the piano, and her devotion to this music was obvious in the sincerity of her performance, even if it seemed misplaced to these ears.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Opera diva offers a satisfying night at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, January 10)

Patrick McCoy, Soprano Renée Fleming: A Sanctuary of Sound (Washington Examiner, January 10)
Introducing the closing Strauss set, Fleming described Strauss as her "desert island composer," and we have indeed enjoyed her work on this composer's music: the touring performance of Strauss's Daphne and her Four Last Songs, although we had to miss her performance of them with Christoph Eschenbach at the NSO gala this past fall. Her performance in Strauss's Capriccio, heard in Paris in 2004, remains one of the highlights of my opera-going life. The first two songs of this Strauss set, Winterweihe and Winterliebe could not be more suited to a January concert, the former showing how Strauss could push the scope and sweep of a voice to its limits and the latter finding some of the weak points of Fleming's upper range. The encores were easy to predict, with the exception of the first one, the odd choice of an aria from Riccardo Zandonai's Conchita: the Fleming standby (especially if the Mariettas Lied is already on the program) of Puccini's O mio babbino caro, plus two Bernstein chestnuts (I Feel Pretty, which should be forbidden as a soprano encore, and Somewhere) related to La Fleming's recent regrettable forays into jazz and rock music.

The next major vocal event on the calendar is the recital by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (February 15, 8 pm), sponsored by WPAS and Vocal Arts D.C. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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