I am not alone in saying that one can never have too much Schubert – or Renée Fleming – or, for that matter, conductor Gianandrea Noseda, since 2017-18 the seventh Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra. The NSO administration and musicians must feel that way about Noseda, having already extended his contract through 2024-25. I have been impressed by his operatic conducting, especially Rossini's Guillaume Tell in concert at Carnegie Hall in December 2014 with the forces of the Teatro Regio di Torino, where he was Music Director from 2007 until 2018. This all-Schubert program, however, was my first encounter with Noseda on the symphonic podium, in a program very far from opera. I was again quite impressed.

Renée Fleming © Andrew Eccles | Decca
Renée Fleming
© Andrew Eccles | Decca

The evening's format was of three Rosamunde highlights alternating with pairs of orchestrated Lieder sung by Fleming (currently Artistic Advisor to the Kennedy Center), and after intermission, Luciano Berio's intriguing 1990 Rendering, an omaggio to Schubert via sketches for a never-completed Tenth Symphony from just before his death at only 31.

I don't recall ever choosing to listen to the Overture to Rosamunde, yet it is so familiar, I must have heard it often! Even so, those opening Beethovenian chords, also repeated later, are startling, particularly in contrast with the lyrical sections, among Schubert's sweetest melodies, and with the lively tune everyone knows. Noseda and his orchestra captured it all.

Entr'acte II seemed an extension of the calm style of Im Abendrot preceding it and an anticipation of the languorous Nacht und Träume that followed. Entr'acte III was even gentler, the strings warm and almost pianissimi at the conclusion. This choice of an Andante and an Andantino, and of their juxtapositions, was masterful programming.

Before singing, Fleming spoke briefly, with warmth and eloquence, of Schubert's genius in writing several of his greatest Lieder before age 20, adding: “In times of uncertainty, An die Musik is healing” and asking everyone to “take out your glasses – I know I'd need mine – and read along.” First was a joyous, rather fast An Sylvia (in the vein of the sprightlier aspects of the Rosamunde Overture?) marred by the intrusive trumpets of the arrangement by contemporary pianist Alexander Schmalcz; in December, when I heard this sung by baritone Matthias Goerne, they had not seemed so blatant, perhaps balanced by the big, lower voice.

Next, one of the evening's highlights: Im Abendrot, in a leisurely tempo ideal for both Fleming's expressive, silvery voice and the imagery of the sunset and the sentiments it inspires. Also healing, as was Nacht und Träume with its near-endless phrases, impossible without her breath control, her voice floating above the quiet orchestral texture. Here, orchestrator Max Reger was at his best; not so with Gretchen am Spinnrade in which the absolutely essential rhythm of the spinning wheel, so strong in the piano, disappeared in the strings while an annoying flute echo kept intruding. Luckily, Fleming conveyed the passion that has stolen Gretchen's peace, but it still needed that obsessive undercurrent. 

Die Forelle represented a lighter vein and voice as Fleming projected the tale of the clever trout and the sadly more-clever fisherman in a marvelous arrangement by Benjamin Britten, the clarinet a fitting protagonist rather than an intrusion, performers and listeners reveling in the music's charm.

Reger let his penchant for flute and other woodwind interference distort an otherwise lovely setting of An die Musik in which Fleming demonstrated the healing of which she spoke: both intense and poignant in voice and text alike, she made this ode to music not only her own but the listeners'.

Pointing out that not everyone knows that one of the five most iconic soprano arias is a Lied by Schubert, she offered his Ave Maria as an encore, in an orchestration by Chris Hazell; considering her excellent German, I was sorry she sang the Latin text instead of the translation of Sir Walter Scott used by the composer. But again: musical healing.

Then, Berio's Rendering! Maestro Noseda read from the composer's introduction explaining that this was not a reconstruction but a restoration as in art, revealing the original colors yet showing the areas damaged by time. The three-movement work bursts with quintessential Schubert, two Allegros framing an Andante worthy of the exquisite slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, while Berio filled the gaps with tessuto connettivo announced each time by the celesta eerily wafting as if in a haze. Both a reading-challenge and an inspiration was Schubert's use of music paper (too expensive) not only for his sketches but for homework from the counterpoint lessons (!) he had begun at the same time. Berio even orchestrated one of the exercises in the Andante. The music often became richly expansive, and so did Noseda's arms and the clearly inspired orchestra. Rendering should be in every orchestra's repertoire.


*****