For a singer so attuned to the undulating tones of the French language, Renée Fleming has recorded relatively little Gallic repertoire apart from the Massenet operas. This album redresses the balance in a tour de force of 20th-century orchestral songs. In Ravel’s Shéhérazade, the American soprano’s rich, finely matured instrument floats above the opulent orchestration and serpentine flute. Her operatic sense of storytelling embodies Scheherazade herself, who tantalises her king and captor with one tale after another in 1,001 Arabian Nights. In some declamatory passages, however, her voice loses the lustre and carefully placed diction heard elsewhere.
Messiaen’s erotic yet deeply spiritual Poèmes for Mi, settings of his own text dedicated to his first wife, were written almost 40 years after Shéhérazade. Fleming exerts a siren-like thrall when she is left exposed in the orchestra’s pregnant pauses. She caresses the ear with impeccable intonation, luxuriating in the long, melismatic “Alleluia”. Later in the cycle, she unveils the satisfying warmth of her lower range, and exploits her keen dramatic instinct in the deranged laughter and visceral imagery of Terror. Alan Gilbert and the Orchestre Philharmonique give these challenging pieces their all in a kaleidoscope of colours, textures and nuances, shimmering strings and shuddering brass.
Harmonically and thematically, the 96-year-old Henri Dutilleux picks up where Messiaen left off in this premiere recording of Le Temps L’Horloge, a five-song meditation on time penned specially for Fleming. Her voice is occasionally overwhelmed by the Orchestre National de France under Seiji Ozawa, but calmer moments featuring accordion and Dutilleux’s signature harpsichord are incredibly atmospheric. There’s some unexpected humour too, in the final song Get Drunk.