Rarely does a leading soprano choose, for the subtitle of her latest major label recital, a word like “Anthropocene.” Even fewer at age 62 would risk displaying their voices in songs that most music lovers know from recordings by those far younger than she.
In Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene (Decca), Renée Fleming, with pianistic and programming support from Yannick Nézet-Séguin, does far more than pull it off. Fleming sounds, for the most part, as gorgeous as ever. While it’s hard not to wonder if all the natural-sounding reverberance on the recording, set down in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center in Philadelphia this past spring, is not designed to conceal a certain loss of volume, what we hear is nigh irresistible.
The first half of the recital’s title, Voices of Nature, refers to 19th-century Romantic songs by Gabriel Fauré, Reynaldo Hahn, Franz Liszt, and Edvard Grieg that inextricably intertwine love and nature in one harmonious package. They’re songs that spoke to Fleming during the pandemic as she daily took long walks along the Virginia trails near her home and reconnected with a love of nature that stems back to her childhood in a very small town near Rochester, New York. And they’re songs that remind us that, even amid the horror, beauty abounds.
Rather than remain starry-eyed while a worldwide pandemic and global warming are continually reshaping our relationship with the natural world and each other, Fleming and Nézet-Séguin bring us into the present with new songs by three of America’s most celebrated younger composers — Kevin Puts, Nico Muhly, and Caroline Shaw. Thus the second half of the title, The Anthropocene, a term that defines “the age of humans” that commenced when the human species began to have a lasting and perhaps irreversible impact on the earth and its ecosystems. Which is not to deny that Shaw’s “Aurora Borealis,” to a visionary poem by Mary Jo Salter, is as gloriously romantic and light filled as anything Hahn or Fauré ever wrote.
Nonetheless, Fleming, and Nézet-Séguin drive their point home by opening with Puts’s “Evening.” “Moonlight pours down without mercy, no matter how many have perished between the trees,” writes Dorianne Laux in poetry that does not shirk from present day realities. Even more startling is “Endless Space,” Muhly’s setting of a remarkably prescient poem by 17th-century Anglican cleric Thomas Traherne. It’s songs such as these — best heard in high-resolution via download and streaming — that remind us that even as so many dive deeper into soul-consuming alternative narratives, there’s ultimately no place to hide.
Fleming’s voice may not be as naturally pointed as that of those greatest exponents of French mélodie who recorded in the early-mid 20th century, like Ninon Vallin or Jeanne Bathori or Maggie Teyte, but its beauty is, in the most important sense, equally idiomatic. If she continues to occasionally add her characteristic swoon to some of her attacks — imagine, if you possibly can, Fauré’s “Prison” or Hahn’s “L’Heure exquise” (The exquisite hour) sung by Blanche DuBois — this “Flemingism” is ultimately no more idiosyncratic than Teyte’s ever-present downward portamento or Garden’s spoken low note in her famed 1904 recording of Debussy’s “Green” with the composer on piano.
There are moments, especially when Fleming moves fast or puts pressure on the voice, that her age begins to show. But when she ends a song with a gorgeous full-voiced A-flat for the ages. as she does in Grieg’s beloved “Ein Traum” (A dream), all we can do is give thanks that we can still bathe in sounds such as these.