Jessye Norman Sings American Masters

West Side Story – Somewhere
Carousel – You’ll Never Walk Alone
Girl Crazy – But Not For Me; I Got Rhythm
Lady, Be Good – The Man I Love
House of Flowers – A Sleepin’ Bee
The Sound of Music – Climb Ev’ry Mountain
On The Town – Lonely Town
Porgy and Bess – My Man’s Gone Now

For Nina Simone: My Baby Just Cares For Me (Kahn)
For Lena Horne: Stormy Weather (Arlen)
For Odetta: Another Man Done Gone (Traditional)
For Ella Fitzgerald: Mack the Knife (Weill)

Meditation; Don’t Get Around Much Anymore; I’ve Got It Bad; It Don’t Mean a Thing

Jessye Norman (soprano) & Mark Markham (piano)

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 21 May, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Jessye NormanAn attractive programme of classics by some of America’s greatest songwriters and a poetic and virtuoso accompanist (who shone in a beautiful Duke Ellington solo, Meditation); yet, there was an element of embarrassment about the evening. Jessye Norman has not (as far as I am aware) given a concert in the UK for some time and it is sad to report that her voice has not worn well. Her biography told of her “recent expansion in the world of jazz” – something suggesting that along with some of her ill-advised colleagues that Norman might have thought that taking up the ‘Great American Songbook’ would be less dangerous (at this point of her career) than continuing with Mozart or Richard Strauss, but each of these numbers has their pitfalls.

The evening did not start off well – both the opening songs have heart-stopping tunes, but these almost disappeared in a multitude of what might politely be called embellishments. Just occasionally, reminders of what made Jessye Norman such a distinguished artist came to the fore, but it seemed all too often that she was in real difficulty.

And whose bright idea was it to amplify the second half of the programme? Perhaps it was Norman’s, who we were told had requested that the air-conditioning be switched off. The amplification system hissed annoyingly and did not assist in projecting Norman’s voice (she hardly used the microphone she held anyway) and ruined the sound of the piano. Perhaps it was thought that this ‘enhancement’ would create the ambience needed for a wonderful song like My Baby Just Cares For Me – sung in homage to the great Nina Simone – well, it didn’t! The only bright spot in this set was Stormy Weather, which, despite the horrible amplification, was genuinely touching. Another Man Done Gone (a spiritual) was accompanied only by Mark Markham hitting the wooden edge of the piano with clenched fist (to some titters from the audience), which probably did his hand more harm than it did the piano. Mack the Knife and the Duke Elllington set were the most successful songs of the evening.

Some in the audience responded long and loud to demand encores, the second of which, Summertime (from Porgy and Bess), was misconceived, shall we say, through an overtly fussy arrangement that made the song unrecognisable.

This concert raised all sort of questions – most notably how long should an artist go on performing in public. I well remember hearing the (recently departed) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his mid-60s giving a full-length Schubert recital. I was mesmerised, both by the voice and the stage presence – he retired not so long after that concert. Janet Baker took the courageous step to retire at the height of her powers, firstly from the opera stage and then from the concert hall. Clearly as long as performers want to go on there will be an audience, but it makes more sense to remember them in their prime and be thankful for what they gave us then.

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