Before this recording, Brad Mehldau was primarily known as a jazz composer and pianist. He accepted a commission from the Carnegie Hall Corporation to compose the music for these songs especially for Renee Fleming, the celebrated soprano whose voice and face have captured the attention of audiences around the world. These songs were performed at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in May 2005 and subsequently recorded for this release. Mehldau played the piano part for both the performance and this recording. For the texts, Mehldau chose some diverse poetry. The seven texts from the Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), deal with a young person’s evolving spirituality. The three selections from the Blue Estauries, by American poet Louise Bogan (1897-1970), were part of a retrospective that the poet compiled near the end of her life; and Renee Fleming introduced Mehldau to these texts. The composer states that his writing was influenced by his “great love for the genre of art song.” Mehldau composed these songs over a two-year period and considers this “…the most exhaustive project I’ve ever done, in terms of sheer blood sweat and tears. The main reason, I think, is that I really ‘composed’ in a more classic sense for these songs – there is no improvisation involved.” For a jazz musician who is used to being able to improvise in each performance and change the musical landscape of each piece as the mood strikes him, this is quite a statement. In other words, don’t expect jazz standards here.
To be honest, I am not a great fan of the variety of contemporary art song that necessitates athletic leaps by a singer. That being said, I do admire Ms. Fleming’s vocal talent and solid musicianship on this recording. She negotiates the ambitious melodies of Mr. Mehldau’s compositions with admirable ease. Ms. Fleming’s tone is gorgeous; but her diction seems to be lost at times in that beautiful sound. I did enjoy “No One Lives This Life” and I could almost imagine this being sung as a type of contemporary spiritual by other singers, notably Audra McDonald. The last selection, “Love Sublime,” was composed in the style of a jazz or pop tune; that is, a lead sheet was provided, and the rest was fleshed out in performance. The song was originally an instrumental that Mehldau had previously recorded under the title “Paris.” Mehldau’s wife, the singer and lyricist Fleurine, wrote words for his tune especially for this disc. This song was actually my favorite on the disc; it seemed more like a song and less like an exercise in vocal gymnastics.
If you are a Renee Fleming fan (as I usually am) and want to join her in exploring undiscovered musical territory, you might enjoy this CD. Otherwise, I suggest that you save your money for one of her other wonderful recordings.
Tracklist: Your First Word Was Light, The Hour Is Striking So Close Above Me, I Love The Dark Hours Of My Being, I Love You, Gentlest Of Ways, No One Lives His Life, His Caring Is A Nightmare To Us, Extinguish My Eyes, I’ll Go On Seeing You, Tears In Sleep, Memory, A Tale, Love Sublime
— Ann Stahmer