S&H Recital review

JESSYE NORMAN with MARK MARKHAM Ravel, Brahms, Satie, Wolf, Copland. Wigmore Hall, 17 July 2001 (PGW)

Jessye Norman's second recital was notable for a rare opportunity to hear Shéhérazade in the composer's own piano arrangement (there is a third version, with flute and piano). Ravel's skill in transcribing (both ways) is legendary and I found the intimacy of this performance paradoxically increased its stature. It is a work I have always admired but not learnt to love; the last two of the three songs can seem fragile in a large hall (last heard live at a Prom). Mark Markham's simulation of the 'bewitching rhythm' of the sea in Asie (more than twice as long as the other two together) was evocative as a full orchestra, as was the piano for Ravel's enchanted flute - in these days of 'authenticity', one could start reflecting upon whether the normal orchestral instrument is the right sort of flute to represent Tristan Klingsor's image? Equally, one had no regrets that Wolf's Aeolian harp, after the interval, was entrusted to the pianist's arpeggiating fingers, instead of the real thing.

The recital was a true conjunction of equals, the diva generous towards her partner, allocating him two of those characteristic Wolf songs with lengthy epilogues which spotlight the pianist, and watchfully maintaining eye contact as they moulded the music together, showing every sign of a comfortable association as they took applause together. Markham is a versatile and accomplished musician, little known in UK, who maintains a 'beautiful' tone throughout his playing (less assertive than our Graham Johnson) but bringing infinite subtleties of shading. Norman, by contrast, allowed a little steel in her voice to point particular words and phrases and even, in the Ravel, some well judged portamenti.

Their Brahms and Wolf groups consisted of proven favourites and gave great pleasure, though it seemed that Jessye Norman was not in absolutely best voice, as there was a worrying tendency towards slightly flat intonation at stressful moments. Three surreal little Satie mélodies did not quite hit the mark; partly because they lay low and was covered by the robust piano writing - music for a smoke filled bar, maybe?

Her second encore was perfection, giving a taste of the subtle nuances she can bring to her own language and ours, and a humorous lesson for all recitalists, with a reminder of how easily, and with what consummate artistry, she had fined down her huge voice so that the balance and dynamic levels in her recital had been judged so well. Could she be persuaded to bring us next time all the marvellous songs of Aaron Copland's song cycle, one of the finest of his works and of 20th century song cycles. She relished Emily Dickinson's tender account of how a singer had been shut out of Heaven, ending with a joyous whoop to a great fortissimo as she asked us all

'Did I sing too loud ?

Peter Grahame Woolf

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