S&H Recital review

Jessye Norman: Schubert, Berg & Poulenc, Wigmore Hall, 13 July 2001 (MB)

This first of two sold-out recitals by Jessye Norman was a reminder, if needed, of what an astonishing voice this great singer possesses. She can still float, like ether, the most fabulous pianissimos (they filled the Wigmore Hall with a sense of mystery you really don't hear with other singers) and the impassioned expressivity of her gestures evoked a dramatic paraphrasing of the words. Even in recital Norman is as much an actress as she is a singer.

It was Berg's Seven Early Songs which showed this most clearly. Although much more exposed than the preceding Schubert Norman covered the mix of lace-like tessitura and deep repose with gripping facility. Nacht had its high notes delicately placed but it was the trenchant, soul-searching expressionism of the closing lines, 'Trinke Seele!' which really fired the imagination. Dynamically, this performance was simply exhilarating to hear - in Schilflied the differentiation in weight and texture on the words 'klaget' and 'flüstert' were breathtaking and in Die Nachtigall the words 'Die Rosen' were sustained with purity of tone. The voice constantly reflected the mood of the settings - so in Traumgekrönt there was somnambulance and in Im Zimmer there was restraint to the voice, darker colouring and a metamorphosis from overt expressionism to an unsettling introversion.

The Schubert was rewarding for much the same reason. The voice dripped colour - whether in the waltz-like rhythms of Der Musensohn or in the hymnal decoration of An die Natur. The conclusion to Rastlose Liebe was gripping - Norman's impassioned nobility of phrasing and sumptuous tone majestic. Poulenc's La fraîcheur et le feu laid out the contrasts in her voice perfectly: there was coolness and fire in the phrasing and a liquid sensitivity to the fast and slow tempi. In le matin les branches attisement her tone bubbled away like molten metal; in Unis la fraîcheur et le feu her voice took on the density of mercury as it resonated with dark, brooding colours. Homme au sourire tendre was as tender as expected, her notes floated like cirrus - and what a stunning final pp on the word 'm'éprouver'. The Apollinaire settings were rewarding in a different way - infectious, evocative and witty there was as much pleasure gained from hearing the voice as there was the way Norman used her eyes and hands to embellish the words.

Garlanded with roses (enough to open a small shop) Norman and her pianist, Mark Markham (throughout the evening a fine accompanist who consistently brought colour and magic to his playing) appeared for the inevitable encores. The final one, an incandescent performance of Richard Strauss' Zueignung, brought the house to its feet to close an utterly memorable recital.

Marc Bridle

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