Jessye Norman Recital – 12 May

Sechs Lieder von Gellert, Op.48
Spirits in the Well [UK premiere]
L’invitation au voyage
Sérénade florentine
La vie antérieure
Chanson triste
Rückert Lieder

Jessye Norman (soprano) &
Mark Markham (piano)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 12 May, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Jessye Norman demonstrated her considerable artistry in a compact and varied programme. This was in the face of considerable noise from a restless and continually coughing audience. In spite of her own finger-to-lips gesture during a pause in Danielpour’s songs and an announcement made during the interval – both greeted with applause – the disturbances continued. Needless to say, it was extremely difficult to concentrate fully on the performance, and it was a tribute to their composure that Jessye Norman and her accompanist maintained their concentration and focus.

Beethoven’s Lieder are often dismissed as being hampered by awkward vocal writing and curious word-setting, but in performances as sensitive as these, such comments become ill-founded. The six poems by Christian Gellert, which Beethoven set in 1803, are religious in character and Beethoven responded with apt imagery to the spirit of the words. Norman’s ample and generous tone is a wondrous thing, but she was often remarkably intimate in her delivery, and yet not a nuance was lost in the space of the Festival Hall.

Her ability to colour words and her impeccable diction were able to convince one that these songs should be heard more frequently. They alternate considerably in mood, and the personal passages in the first and second songs were effectively set off against a song such as ’The Glory of God in Nature’ which was given a majestic, noble reading. Throughout, Mark Markham provided ready and apt support, drawing fine tone from the piano.

On the evidence of his 1998 settings of poems by Toni Morrison, Spirits in the Well, Richard Danielpour has composed songs that are fully deserving of being in the company of those by Ned Rorem, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and other distinguished American composers. Written for Jessye Norman, she clearly relishes the distinctive words and makes the sometimes rather angular vocal line sound quite natural. Rich chromatic piano writing introduces the first song ’Down in the well’ which benefited from Norman’s pointed declamation. The rhythmic, if not the melodic spirit of Leonard Bernstein seemed to pervade ’At some point the world’s beauty is enough’, with the virtuoso accompaniment never overpowering the voice. The touching words and music of ’I envy public love’ were especially moving, with Norman conveying an emotional response that was not in the least exaggerated. ’There are no new songs’ provided a nostalgic conclusion, with the piano’s postlude proving quite haunting.

This was altogether a distinguished performance of songs that I hope will gain a regular place in the repertoire.

The distinctive art of Henri Duparc was cut short by his own volition when he destroyed much of his music in 1885 and wrote virtually nothing thereafter until his death in 1933. His songs, whose vocal lines often soar and whose harmonies are often quite striking, yet, paradoxically, seem inevitable, create a unique atmosphere which Jessye Norman conveyed compellingly. L’invitation au voyage was superbly evocative as indeed were the others of this thoughtfully chosen group. Once again, Norman’s relish of words was something to savour, and the sense of her always having ’something in reserve’ was particularly suited to Duparc’s delicate music.

Turning to the altogether darker world of Gustav Mahler gave one pause to reflect how unerringly Jessye Norman was able to judge the character of each of her chosen composers, with her delivery perfectly suited to each. She made Mahler’s Rückert settings often sound much more tender than can sometimes be the case, although the occasional mood of restlessness, the coyness of ’Liebst du um Schönheit’ (If you love for beauty) and intensity elsewhere were all perceptively communicated. Her evident empathy with Mark Markham ensured there was a true partnership united in purpose. His perceptive and thoroughly secure playing was a joy in itself. What a pity the final notes of the piano’s envoi were ruined by intrusive applause and cheering – which quite destroyed the contemplative atmosphere the performers had created.

This cough-infested audience was subsequently granted a voluptuous, almost Straussian rendition of Schumann’s Widmung and then three of Falla’s Spanish songs which were further evidence – if it were needed – of Jessye Norman’s generosity of spirit.

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