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?