What: Renee Fleming, Distant Light (Decca)
Rating: 4/5
Verdict: Disappointing Nordic venture from ambitious American soprano

Renee Fleming continues to explore unpredictable repertoire on CD.

During the years, the soprano's fine performances of Richard Strauss, Handel and Dutilleux sit alongside lacklustre excursions to the other side of the musical tracks including the 2010 album, Dark Hope, where she tackled rock songs by the likes of Muse and Arcade Fire.

Yet, in 2015, she combined courage and style, joining Emerson String Quartet for Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, the perfect vehicle for a voice that conductor Georg Solti once likened to double cream.


Fleming's latest outing, Distant Light, takes a Nordic turn, recorded in Sweden with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Sakari Oramo. Substantial works by the US's Samuel Barber and Swede Anders Hillborg share the disc with three songs by the charismatic Icelandic singer Bjork.

Problems set in with Barber's lovely Knoxville, Summer of 1915 in which the soprano's luscious vocalising misses the almost conversational intimacy of the piece's essential story-telling, with crucial text lost in the stratosphere.

The mellow nostalgia of Barber lingers for Hillborg's The Strand Settings in which four poems by Mark Strand are treated in an almost uniformly slow and pastoral manner.

The startling third setting, dealing out images of sick angels and bus terminal whores, provides welcome relief. Sakaro gets his players to spit musical fire and the soprano almost moves into snarl mode. It's a wonderful wake-up making one wonder whether Fleming might consider Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire for a future recording project.

Three Bjork songs, lugubrious in tempo and saturated with vocal cream, are simply a mistake.

Hans Ek's inventive orchestrations try hard, but there's no replacing the quirky patchwork of beats and jagged samples in the original, and Bjork's waif-like voice is infinitely preferable to Fleming's homogenised legatissimo.

In one song, the soprano makes so much of its "emotional landscapes," but it's Bjork who brought them definitively to life in her recording 20 years ago.

What: Mieczyslav Weinberg, Chamber Symphones/Piano Quartet (ECM, through Ode Records)
Rating: 5/5
Verdict: Gidon Kremer alerts us to a composer whom more of us should know

Polish composer Mieczyslav Weinberg (1919-1996) deserves to be much more widely acknowledged in the ranks of 20th century music.

In 2012, Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismarck and Stephen De Pledge revealed the wonders of a 1945 sonata for cello and piano in a local concert while his opera, The Passenger, without subtitles, is regularly screened on SKY Arts' endlessly rotating schedules.

Otherwise, in New Zealand, you'll mostly find Weinberg's music on CD.

Violinist Gidon Kremer, with the strings of his Kremerata Baltica, has just recorded a generous double album featuring four of the composer's chamber symphonies and an earlier piano quintet, arranged for string orchestra and percussion.

Kremer is a self-confessed fan of the man, hailing his music as totally free from any one compositional system, school or ideology; a considerable achievement when Weinberg spent most of his life living under the cultural strictures of Soviet Russia.

On first listen, many will hear parallels with the music of his friend Shostakovich, whether in the nervy melodic wanderings of the very first Lento or the barbed textures and invigorating rhythms of the following Allegro molto. Both are perfectly caught in a recording so intimate that it seems almost to stalk the players.

A second chamber symphony from 1987 adds Andrei Pushkarev's timpani to dramatic effect, especially when he lays eerie echoes under a middle movement that could have danced out of a Mahler symphony.

Weinberg's final chamber symphony, dating from 1992 and uncompleted at his death, increases the palette to include clarinet, timpani and triangle, with the gentle key clatter of clarinetist Mate Bekavac injecting a klezmer-like pathos into its finale.

Those who know and admire Weinberg's 1944 Piano Quintet may not immediately warm to Kremer's adding orchestra alongside the impressively incisive soloist, Yulianna Avdeeva. However, there's no denying the unsettling power of its central Presto, moving from ghostly scurries to a lusty waltz that might have escaped from the darkest heart of the ballet.