Barber – Hillborg – Björk
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Sakari Oramo, conductor
Renée Fleming’s Distant Light is undoubtedly a curiosity and not for only one reason, but for many. The most prominent of all features is that this is an unusual and heterogeneous album, because it collects songs by Samuel Barber, Anders Hillborg and Björk, names that, at first, seems to have nothing in common except that they are modern or contemporary composers and songwriters – and this is such a broad category that it does not really mean nothing. I have read somewhere that the album is Renée Fleming’s tribute to Scandinavian music, but when you consider that Barber was an American composer and that Björk is an Icelandic pop singer (even if her songs are re-orchestrated here by a Swedish composer), also this bond becomes weak. And then?
All my perplexities about the homogeneity of Distant Light disappeared after I ended to listen to it. The works collected here are not out of place and, even if Barber’s Knoxville has the warmness that lacks the “Northern” pieces, they seem to be a natural consequence of each other rather than exclude one another. This is not indispensable for an album, but it is fine when it happens.
The first composition is also the longest and is the famous Knoxville: Summer of 1915, an orchestral song commission to Barber by soprano Eleanor Steber, who sings at the premiere in 1948 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra directed by Serge Koussevitzky. Knoxville is considered Barber’s most American work among those which do not include native elements for its nostalgic and folkloristic evocation of the summer evenings in Tennessee after the words of a short text written by poet and novelist James Agee in 1938. Barber did not follow Agee’s text closely, but the excerpts he chose parallel the words very well.
Knoxville is followed by Hillborg’s vocal cycle The Strand Settings, especially written for Renée Fleming, who premiered it in 2013 with the New York Philharmonic. The “Strand” of the title is the Canadian-American poet Mark Strand. One of the poems of The Strand Settings provides also the title of the album.
At last, Distant Light features three songs by Björk. This is an odd choice, but Fleming explains it in the booklet stating: «Americans tend to kind of block Scandinavians together, and Björk is somebody who’s such a household name, and when I became more familiar with her music, I just thought: “God, this is so inventive, the use of language, the arrangements”». Fleming’s admiration for Björk is unquestionable: «Her originality is breathtaking. She just blazes her own path forward».
Fleming has chosen the songs of Björk which are closer to her personality and then they have been lavishly orchestrated by Swedish composer Hans Ek. This is the first time the new arrangement is recorded.
As for the performance, Distant Light is a magical and marvellous recording. As I said before, its programme is very well chosen, but now I add that the wonderful result has been possible thanks to the excellent performance given by Fleming and by Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Sakari Oramo. It is their sensitive and refined spirit that make this album unforgettable.
Fleming’s silvery voice is shining in the high notes and is gifted with the rare talent to express sweetness. This feeling characterizes her singing in such a deep way that I think it is innate in it. This delicate feature is perfectly appropriate to the nostalgic climate of Knoxville, where the quiet and melancholic image of a summer evening is described also by the discreet accompaniment of Oramo.
The Strand Setting introduces a completely different atmosphere and Fleming shows here her charism and energy, especially in the first two pieces, which have the form of “recitatives”. She gives also full justice to the unsettling and disillusioned world portrayed by the cycle.
In Björk’s songs, the voice of Fleming becomes like crystal and is more delicate and ethereal than ever. It was a pleasure to listen to her in this repertoire and I have to say that her choice cannot but be considered fine. It was a nice surprise also to listen to Fleming duet with herself in All This Is Full of Love. «I wanted to do that for years» Fleming admits. «This is what pop artists do. I’m my own backup chorus».