It is quite a coup to secure the services of Renee Fleming to sing with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra. She is the leading soprano of her generation - a singer possessed of a keen intelligence as well as a gloriously rich creamy sound. It is a shame that the concert did not fully showcase her talent to best effect.
It was very much a concert of two halves. Things started pretty well with an energetic performance of the overture to Tannhauser. This is a piece that mixes the grand with the playful to great effect. Marios Pappadopoulus conducted with great elan - conveying a real sense of narrative as well as musical drive. The acoustics of the Sheldonian are not ideal for music of the weight of Wagner and so the brass lacked the real visceral punch that you might want. There were also issues with the articulation from some of the higher strings that robbed us of some of the detail.
I suspect part of the issue may well have been the idiosyncratic rearrangement of the various string sections - it may well have been driven by the logistical challenges of the venue but clearly did not serve the music-making as it should have done.
I must confess that Tristan and Isolde is not of the Wagner operas that has ever held any power for me. I know there are many who are entranced by the famous chord - but the 'Prelude' and 'Liebestod' left me somewhat cold. It may well have been a technically correct performance but it did not evoke any emotional response from me - no goosebumps at all.
After the interval, I was very surprised to see Renee Fleming being lead to a platform at the rear of the orchestra for the 'Vier Letzte Lieder' by Richard Strauss. These are perhaps the greatest orchestral songs ever written - and certainly a favourite of many in the hall.
But we were robbed of the detail and beauty of Fleming's interpretation by placing her behind the orchestra meaning that we were constantly straining to hear the words and how she was colouring them. I know from having heard recordings of her previous performances that she is always alert to the text and it would have been glorious to experience this live. But we didn't get that - and this was a massive disappointment.
Thankfully she seemed to sense the disconnection from the audience and the violins were swiftly rearranged to allow her to come to the front for 2 beautifully sung encore pieces - 'Zueignung' and 'Morgen!' which were the highlights of the evening, with the singer and orchestra alive to the shifting moods of the poetry. If only we had been able to experience the rest of the lieder in this way.
So it was very much a wasted opportunity and one entirely due to poor planning on the part of the orchestra. One of the world's greatest singers should be cherished not hidden at the back of the hall.