Arts: She whispered, she roared, she wept, she soared ...

From the moment of La Norman's grand entrance in shimmering blue chiffon, her strong, creamy voice and sense of drama proved more than equal to Berlioz's testing song collection `Les Nuits d'ete'. Adrian Jack marvels at the diva's Barbican concert.

You'd expect a singer's solo spot to be in the middle of an orchestral concert, not at the end. But if Brahms's G minor Piano Quartet orchestrated by Schoenberg had come after the interval on Thursday evening, La Norman's fans might have left a lot of empty seats.

It's a long way from the artists' entrance to the Barbican platform, and Norman did not want to be seen struggling the distance. After all, she is a diva, and should simply appear, by as close to supernatural means as the Barbican's carpenters could devise. So screens were specially constructed each side to conceal the goddess until she was safely on the stage. The sight of her scarcely needed enhancing. She had tugged her hair upwards in a dark blue chiffon, so that it climaxed in a sort of exclamation mark. Her dress was simple black crepe, draped with a diaphanous blue over-garment. The style evoked the salons and boudoirs of the early 19th century, the colours suggested the erotic nocturnal melancholy of Berlioz's six settings of Theophile Gautier, Les Nuits d'ete.

Originally, Berlioz wrote the songs for different types of voice, though they are nearly always sung by a mezzo-soprano. The strain on one singer can tell, and the effect of a collection, which wasn't conceived in the first place as a cycle, can become monotonous. Although Berlioz kept his orchestration light, the music is grand, and Norman's strong, creamy voice was certainly built for grandeur. What surpassed expectation were the many ways in which she varied it. In the delicate, tripping "Villanelle", she reduced her potentially enormous sound playfully, without any sign of awkwardness. "Le spectre de la rose", rapturous and swaying, called for a more ardent, sustained line, a bigger voice, twisting upwards perilously at the end of the first verse, later hushed to a whisper against softly bubbling harp, to the words "Ce leger parfum est mon ame / Et j'arrive du paradis" ("This delicate perfume is my soul and I come from Paradise").

At the end of the song, Norman looked upwards, smiled, opened her arms, then closed her eyes. She may scorn acting for intellectually inclined opera producers, but she can certainly do it on the concert platform. Besides, there was enough acting in her voice to make her expansive bodily gestures an optional extra. In "Sur les lagunes", she lamented her dead lover with a sepulchral resonance on the word "toujours", and softly squeezed "femme" and "elle" as if she were kissing them. The refrain of "Absence" - "Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimee" ("Come back, my beloved"), pitched cruelly high and stretched in time by Berlioz - receded in the back of her head like a hopeless appeal. It was a brilliant stroke of expressive colouring. These details all contributed to a sustained view of each song as a whole. The only thing that left a little to be desired was the way Norman sometimes distorted the sounds of words for the sake of musical smoothness; so "la blanche tombe" in "Au cimetiere" scarcely had any consonants, and in "L'ile inconnue", the repeated word "aile" sometimes began with an "ah", so much nicer to sing than "ai". Still, it's a very rare singer indeed who never resorts to that sort of self-help.

The London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas supported Norman wonderfully. Only here did Tilson Thomas follow a score. He conducted Berlioz's Overture Le Carnaval Romain and the Brahms/ Schoenberg Quartet from memory. Schoenberg's arrangement was commissioned by Otto Klemperer and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It stopped just short of frivolity with touches of triangle and xylophone in the scherzo-like second movement, and even a tambourine and glockenspiel in the final gipsy rondo.

Brahms would have been surprised, too, at the bass clarinet and trombones, the latter sometimes muted. But then Schoenberg's love for Brahms's music didn't bind him to academic reverence. The LSO's playing was certainly sumptuous, though Michael Tilson Thomas coarsened the third movement by indulging what Schoenberg had unduly amplified - that march-like middle section didn't merit such bombast. Bernard Shaw, who called Brahms a sensualist with intellectual pretensions, might have said "I told you so."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Arts and Entertainment
Ella Henderson's first studio album has gone straight to the top of the charts
music
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

Life and Style
fashion
News
Paul Nuttall, left, is seen as one of Ukip's key weapons in selling the party to the North of England
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand labelled 'left-wing commie scum' by Fox News
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000
TV

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow

News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Sport
Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
football
Arts and Entertainment
artKaren Wright tours the fair and wishes she had £11m to spare
News
i100
Life and Style
Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh been invited to take part in Women Fashion Power, a new exhibition that celebrates the way women's fashion has changed in relation to their growing power and equality over the past 150 years
fashionKirsty and Camila swap secrets about how to dress for success
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

    £60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

    Year 5/6 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Permanent Year 6 TeacherThe job:This...

    KS1 & KS2 Teachers

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: KS1+KS2 Teachers required ASAP for l...

    Year 2 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 2 Teacher The position is to wo...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past