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?
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby bought for just £10 at car boot sale could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Katie Hopkins and The Sun editor David Dinsmore reported to police for incitement to racial hatred following migrant boat column
- 3 Giorgio Armani criticises the way some gay men dress saying 'a man has to be a man'
- 4 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
- 5 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: George Lucas admits he hasn't seen The Force Awakens trailer
Star Wars: Rogue One trailer: Watch the teaser for the Jedi-less Death Star heist film
Avengers Age of Ultron: 'After credits' scene leaks online days before public release
Groundhog Day musical to premiere at Old Vic from Matilda theatre director
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate