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?
TVJamie's Sugar Rush reveal's campaigning chef's new foe
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 'Heartbreaking' Syria orphan photo wasn't taken in Syria and not of orphan
- 4 Bob Geldof offers to take four refugee families into his home 'immediately' as he condemns humanitarian crisis as a ‘f**king disgrace'
- 5 Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Three million books were judged by their covers - this is what happened
Anne Hathaway is already being stung by Hollywood ageism, aged 32
No Escape, film review: Thriller generates plenty of excitement but soon collapses
The Lobster trailer: Colin Farrell has 45 days to find a lover or he'll be turned into an animal
Spanish town saved by botched restoration of century-old Christian 'Ecce Homo' fresco of Jesus
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be