Renée Fleming’s new CD Distant Light is quite unusual for a “diva disc”. It’s definitely not “Opera’s Greatest Hits” territory. Rather, it’s in three quite contrasting parts though all are linked by the idea of “emotional landscapes”. It starts off with Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, follows it with settings of Mark Strand poems by Anders Hillborg and finishes up with arrangements of Björk songs. She’s accompanied throughout by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra with Sakari Oramo conducting.
The Barber piece sets a text by James Agee which is quite fragmentary and not obviously singable. Barber gives it a setting that varies quite a lot in mood and is full of melodic and rhythmic invention. It’s very Barber actually. Fleming is good here. Her voice is true and clean with no harshness in the upper register and her diction is excellent. It’s not often that the text in a high soprano setting is this comprehensible.
Hillborg’s The Strand Settings sets four poems by former US Poet Laureate Mark Strand. The first, Black Sea, gets a very sparse setting with the orchestra barely in evidence. The vocal line is very simple too. This changes for the three pieces from the Dark Harbor series. XX is set very high with some melismatic effects and a much grander orchestral approach. Full on post-Romanticism in fact. XXXV is much more modern sounding; faster, more abrasive, edgier while XI is lighter in tone, playful and complex. Yes, like some other contemporary composers Hillborg is very hard to pigeonhole stylistically. Fleming navigates the various styles and moods with aplomb as does the orchestra. These are fine settings of very interesting texts and well worth repeated listening.
The Björk songs are just not my thing. I’m sure she has her admirers but it’s too close to Eurovision territory for me. There’s nothing wrong with Hans Ek’s arrangements or Renée’s performance but I really wonder why anyone feels the need to arrange pop songs for classical forces. I can just about cope with the Berio Beatles settings but not this!
Full texts and a useful introductory essay are included in the booklet.