Appropriately for a singer who speaks excellent French, the first was C’Est l’Extase, a sequence of 10 settings by Debussy of the poet Paul Verlaine, “arranged, linked, and scored with an epilogue by Robin Holloway”, as the published score puts it – though a couple were omitted in this performance.
Holloway uses a relatively modest orchestra with discretion and discrimination, yet the middle and lower registers of Fleming’s fluid soprano were masked at times, though her higher notes rose bright and glittering above the texture, especially in the soaring phrases of the final song, La Mer Est Plus Belle. While the orchestral links felt a bit forced and the epilogue redundant, the subtle delicacy of the overall result triumphed over its limitations.
More brilliant and immediately striking was the other new work, by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, also premiered in 2013. The texts of The Strand Settings – by the Canadian-American poet Mark Strand, who died the following year, aged 80 – were articulated by Fleming with the keenest precision and the firmest expressive intentions; yet however thrillingly scored, Hillborg’s vital, shimmering accompaniments never overpowered her, always allowing space for the voice to cut through.
Debussy in his own guise opened the concert in a masterly exposition by Oramo of the Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’Un Faune, in which every note, from the rapt opening flute solo – evocatively played by Michael Cox – was astutely positioned. The second suite from Ravel’s ultra-lavish Daphnis et Chloé ended it in a riotous blaze of exotic colour, with the BBC Singers’ wordless exultations adding to its sense of wild pagan hedonism.