This is the second time Renée Fleming has recorded Strauss' Four Last Songs, and she gives a serene, luminous performance. One of the glories of her handling of the songs is the variety of vocal colors she brings to them. For instance, "Frühling" begins with a throaty duskiness that gives way to silky gossamer as the poetic imagery lifts from "somber shadows" to "blue skies." The details of Fleming's interpretation are always rooted in a sure sense of the songs' larger musical trajectory. She has performed this work more than any other; besides having a voice and temperament ideally suited to the songs, she brings a career's worth of experience singing them, giving her both interpretive freedom and deeply considered insight. In the program notes, she is quoted as saying, "When I started learning the epic Four Last Songs, it soon became clear to me that, no matter how well the songs were sung, it was the overall pacing of the piece, combined with the quality of the orchestral playing, that really shaped it." She has stellar collaborators in Christian Thielemann and the Münchner Philharmoniker. Thielemann's reading and the orchestra's playing are luxuriant and ecstatic. A small quibble: the songs should have been placed at the end, rather than at the beginning of the album; the radiance of the performance needs to be followed by silence. In the remaining selections, which include excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Ägyptische Helena and various songs, Fleming sings with no less vocal beauty, but the music itself, as lovely as much of it is, overall seems anticlimactic following the sublime songs. The warmth of Decca's sound matches that of the performances.
The second CD, Signature Roles at the Met Opera, is a reissue of recordings Fleming made for Decca over the years, with a variety of conductors and orchestras. The title is misleading; the fine print reads that these are "the soprano's most acclaimed roles, many performed at the Met." Decca doesn't identify the source of the performances, so it requires some sleuthing to figure out when and under what circumstances the recordings were made. The selection from Thaïs with Yves Abel leading Orchestra National Bordeaux Aquitaine is taken from a complete 2000 performance of the opera; the selections from Eugene Onegin and Rusalka and Otello, with Georg Solti leading the London Symphony Orchestra, are from the 1996 collection Signatures-Great Opera Scenes; and the final scene from Capriccio, with Christoph Eschenbach leading the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, is taken from a 1998 album Strauss Heroines. These are in fact some of Fleming's most characteristic roles from the late- and post-Romantic eras, and in each, her velvety voice and emotional and dramatic focus are on superb display. Here, closing the CD with the tender, bittersweet, ambiguous finale to Capriccio is a brilliant artistic decision. This collection should be of interest to any Fleming fan who doesn't already have the previous releases of these performances, and it makes a terrific introduction for anyone who wants to get to know her work.