Jessye Norman, Royal Festival Hall, London ***
Thursday 15 May 2003
The trouble with being a living legend like Jessye Norman is that you attract an audience that is more interested in applauding than in listening. At one point during Monday night's Royal Festival Hall recital she even put a forefinger to her lips to still a gale of coughing, which prompted the management to make an extra request for silence before the second half.
Miss Norman's programme made few concessions to popular appeal, and the coughing got worse during "Spirits in the Well", a cycle of four songs composed in 1998 by the American composer Richard Danielpour. This set words by Toni Morrison in broad and very singable vocal phrases, not terribly interesting in themselves, but supported by elaborate accompaniments, thick with complex harmony in the manner of Charles Ives. Fortunately, Norman's pianist, Mark Markham, was worth listening to: a supple player with confident delivery and a wide range of colour.
The programme opened with Beethoven's Seven Gellert Songs, setting pious spiritual poems with titles such as "Supplication" and "Love of One's Neighbour". Their simple solemnity allowed Norman to warm up with discreet dignity, though in scaling down her tone in the last, "Song of Penitence", she sounded uncomfortable and tended to sing flat.
The question arose, again, in four songs by Henri Duparc, why she had chosen so much introspective music, which deprived us of the full vocal splendour we hoped to enjoy. Not that "L'invitation au voyage" nor "Chanson triste" needed to be quite so ethereal or, to be blunt, starved of tone. Only briefly, in the middle of "La vie antérieure", did the voice open up. All these songs are great music, but they didn't provide the kind of meat that Norman could get her teeth into: she was rather too in awe of them.
Mahler's five Rückert Lieder were more like it, at least after the delicate opening song, sensitively played by Markham with Norman floating, mezza-voce, above. She was still a bit too dainty in the second song, "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder", though you could argue that that suited its plea for secrecy. "Um Mitternacht", at last, showed what the voice could do at full throttle, and the audience couldn't resist clapping. Nor could they wait for the last song to die away naturally before they were at it again.
Norman took it all with her customary grace, and paid her impatient public an undeserved compliment by adding Schumann's "Widmung" ("Dedication") as her first encore. But what I liked best were three of Falla's Spanish Songs, in the last of which Norman showed an unsuspected gift for raw flamenco passion. Why couldn't we have had more of that sort of thing?
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Scarlett Johansson new band 'already hit with legal complaint' from another The Singles
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Wolf Hall finale, review: Simply brilliant TV
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
House of Cards season 3 premiere, review: Has Frank Underwood gone soft?
Scarlett Johansson new band 'already hit with legal complaint' from another The Singles
Oscars 2015: Birdman beats Boyhood as Eddie Redmayne and Patricia Arquette win big - as it happened
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East