Music / Natural liedership qualities: Nick Kimberley on Barbara Hendricks

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The Independent Culture
FROM Marian Anderson by way of Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett to Jessye Norman, the great Afro-American divas have displayed an effulgent vocal richness, tending towards contralto even when the voice is nominally soprano - indeed, Norman seems intent on covering every part of the female register. Barbara Hendricks is different, the voice leaner and airier, more European perhaps.

Hers is the ideal voice for the Wigmore Hall, filling the auditorium without bruising the ears the way some operatic voices can in smaller venues. When Hendricks turns the volume up, there is fulsome strength, although the chest register sometimes seems a touch undersupported. Still, it is a fine instrument, and it held the Wigmore audience rapt.

It was a recital of two halves, with an extended period of extra time (five encores). In the first half, Hendricks tackled German Lieder by Schubert and Wolf. The accent was commendably precise, vowels and consonants distinct, each emotion underplayed, as is the way in this repertoire. I can't help feeling that the emotional content would be more accessible if programme booklets provided more idiomatic translations: Schubert's Du liebst mich nicht became 'You Love Me Not'; Das ist ja schon ein Lied] was rendered as 'Behold - a Song]' German Lieder are already somewhat stilted, like posed portraits. Such translations exaggerate the stiffness, leaving those of us with less than perfect German to follow the songs as pure music - a loss, surely.

Still, Hendricks makes pretty pure music, using delicate portamenti to loosen the stays that bind this repertoire. In Wolf's Kennst du das Land? ('Do You Know the Land?'), the voice really does swell and surge at the word Flut (flood). Not that there are any exaggerated gestures, vocal or physical: she stands still, hands at her side at almost every moment. When the going gets steamy, she allows her left hand to lift six inches, but the movement is quickly checked.

After the interval, Hendricks moved into what has become her home territory, - French song (Faure, Chausson, Gounod, Bizet). The accent, suprisingly, seemed less secure. On the other hand, the songs' easier emotion suited her, their looser rhythms encouraging greater vocal freedom.

The recital reached its climax with two Bizet songs, Ouvre ton coeur ('Open Your Heart') embellished with well-accomplished Carmenisms, and Les adieux de l'hotesse arabe ('The Farewell of the Arabian Hostess') indulging in little flights of orientalist fancy. Hendricks gave them full measure, and was rewarded by generous applause, but no standing ovation.

Perhaps that's why her encores, beginning with more Faure, were so extended, as she strove to lift the audience out of its seat. This is London, though, and the only people getting out of their seats were those leaving during a fabulously ornamented rendition of Gershwin's Summertime. Did they really have trains to catch, or did they feel that by now we were on to the potboilers? The exodus continued through two spirituals, each making a political statement as necessary today as when they were first sung.

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