In the Großer Saal of the Musikverein, two dazzling soloists who need little introduction, Renée Fleming and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, came together and made music. Their program, beautifully curated, combined primarily German and French songs with a few piano solos, a trend I applaud. Throughout the 19th century in Vienna after all, piano or other instrumental solos were part of nearly every song recital, a practice which has fallen by the wayside and adds variety and interest when done well. Though the playlist was adjusted at the last minute when the pianist announced for the evening, Evgeny Kissin, fell ill and had to withdraw, his replacement, Thibaudet is not a stranger to either this repertoire or to collaborating with Fleming. Their working relationship spans well over twenty years, and they performed this recital nearly verbatim last fall in Los Angeles.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Renée Fleming
© Dieter Nagl

Both artists were able to demonstrate their considerable strengths throughout. Thibaudet’s pearly clarity in pianissimo, flawless runs and the ability to coax subtle shadings of color that speak to the back of the hall in every register were particularly noticeable in his solo work. In Liszt’s Consolation no. 3 in D flat major he employed subtle subito pianos which underscored particularly noteworthy harmonic shifts perfectly. With Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie, he painted a masterful, never messy, acoustic image. The cathedral’s stained glass, arched buttresses, ringing bells mingling in watery depths were vivid and cleanly defined. 

Fleming was fresh-voiced and flighty through the opening Schubert set, her Suleika I sparkling, Die Vögel twittering away and Rastlose Liebe properly breathless while the Lied der Mignon displayed her brilliant breath control to great effect. As a fan of her lower register color, my favorite numbers were the intimate Les Berceaux, one of Fauré’s masterpieces, and the Duparc duo near the concert’s close. Her downward portamento on “bien-aimée” in Extase induced chills, likewise her coloring of the final line of Le Manoir de Rosemonde.

What left me a bit cold initially was a general lack of intimacy — I cannot claim to have been moved much by this performance — and not all of the blame can be laid at the artists’ feet. While I personally love some of the Liszt settings (Oh! Quand je dors, Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’) others feel superficial, especially compared to other settings. The greatest offender here is Im Rhein, im schönen Strome which has taken all the teeth out of Heine’s sarcastic bite. The textual shift from the original “heiligen Strome” to “schönen Strome” says it all — a devastating text is quickly reduced to a pretty tune. In addition, the Großer Saal is not an ideal place to experience art song, not least because even diction as exemplary as Fleming’s has little chance in reaching audiences even at the hall’s mid-point, and without the text Lieder lose their character and become nothing but sound. 

Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Renée Fleming
© Dieter Nagl

Speaking of sound, what I love about Thibaudet’s playing is his ability with his right hand, which sings and flutters so effortlessly and with such fabulous control. This is fine in solo work, but his strength is often in the same range as where Fleming’s voice sits, and where I would have preferred more depth and warmth and bass to balance out her shimmer, what ended up happening was sometimes inadvertent competition instead of support. It was two brilliant architects conducting their own adjacent building projects, instead of creating something unified together. They did seem to find their groove together as things progressed, and the Kevin Puts contribution was lovely, likewise the three crowd-pleasing encores; Debussy’s Beau soir, Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s When You Wish Upon a Star of Pinocchio fame (which Fleming explained Disney had blocked them from using in a television broadcast together) and – perfectly – Strauss’ Morgen! to close. 

***11