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Fleming’s beautiful Schubert trumped by poignant restoration

Singer Renée Fleming performs with the National Symphony Orchestra. (Timothy White/Decca)
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The draw was America’s Sweetheart: the soprano Renée Fleming, honeyed scrolls of hair around her heart-shaped face, her voice sounding as ivory-fresh and bright and girlish as ever. The hero of the evening, though, was a pudgy young man who remains an elusive object of desire for generations of music-lovers: Franz Schubert, who was responsible for all of the music on the National Symphony Orchestra’s Kennedy Center Concert Hall program on Friday night and who yet had, strictly speaking, written very little of it.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda’s all-Schubert program managed to make a showcase for a superstar into an invigorating look at a much-beloved composer. Featured on the first half were seven (including one encore) of the most popular of Schubert’s 600-plus songs, interspersed with three bits of the incidental music from “Rosamunde” (a play that flopped in 1820). The songs were arranged for orchestra by Alexander Schmalcz, Max Reger and Benjamin Britten. We were hearing Schubert’s melodies, that is, but filtered through different sensibilities.

Fleming, however, offered a uniform take on them. The singer has moved gracefully into late-career territory, branching out into other areas (such as singing in “Carousel” on Broadway and her noteworthy VOICES series at the Kennedy Center, which is not at all focused on classical music, though it will feature the powerhouse mezzo Jamie Barton in March). At 59, she remains a consummately intelligent singer who marshals her resources as effectively and thoughtfully as possible, and she retains a light, silvery voice that offered echoes of Strauss, another composer who juxtaposes high soprano and large orchestra, as these arrangements did, and whose music has always fit her like a glove.

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The voice is a little drier and thinner than it was in its prime: beautiful but delicate. It didn’t always shine out over the orchestra, and it certainly wasn’t helped in the first song, “An Sylvia,” by Schmalcz’s doubling the voice with muted trumpets in the third verse. What it conveyed, more than anything, was a sense of its own bright, fading beauty. Fleming’s detractors tend to call her out on issues of taste, a tendency to swoop and scoop and caress the sound; that wasn’t especially prevalent except in Britten’s arrangement of “Die Forelle,” which got a bit yodelly. But “Gretchen am Spinnrade” sounded more like a parlor piece than a real expression of anxiety, and “An die Musik” became routine. Highlights were “Nacht und Träume,” a song of delayed, parcelled-out gratification, marred by a few breaks of the shining line, and the encore, “Ave Maria,” sung not with the original words Schubert set (by Sir Walter Scott) but with the better-known Latin text — yet another version, that is, and yet another piece focused mainly on simple beauty. It hardly mattered that she stumbled a bit over the words.

It was all very pretty, and the audience loved it. But musically, Fleming’s performance didn’t convey the sense of event even that the same songs did when Anne Sofie von Otter sang them with Christoph Eschenbach and the NSO in 2013. Artistically, the night would have felt incomplete without the program’s second half, which on paper doubtless seemed unpromising to many who came to hear Fleming. The 20th-century Italian composer Luciano Berio, after all, is hardly thought of as a crowd-pleaser for the subscription audience. “Rendering,” though, could well have changed people’s minds: It’s an exhumation of the sketches Schubert left for a 10th symphony, only weeks before he died at the age of 31.

Noseda read to the audience Berio’s written introduction to the piece, which aimed, he said, to be a restoration, not a reconstruction, like an old fresco revealing the original colors without disguising the damage time had caused. This proved a telling description of a piece that offered passages of pure Schubert juxtaposed with clouds of haze in which the colors were still present but the outlines became unclear, as a celesta groped its way through the fog with sounds that seemed to indicate distance, otherworldliness, the ache of lost memory. It was a magnificent way to hear a side of Schubert you otherwise couldn’t: a symphony that started and finished and kept emerging throughout with assurance and maturity, but one too incomplete to be played. Berio’s restoration laid it out like parchment fragments, offering possible connections and a way to advance from one section to the other so that one could get a small taste of what was meant, and the orchestra rose to the challenge and played with more focus and power than it had on the first half, in an evening that left one both fulfilled and aching for what might have been.

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The program will be repeated on Sunday at 3 p.m.