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Portrait of the Artist, Part One

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/24/2001 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Gellert Lieder
Richard Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder
Maurice Ravel: Sheherazade
Arnold Schoenberg: from Brettl Lieder

Jessye Norman (soprano)
James Levine (piano)

You don’t need me to tell you what a great singer Jessye Norman is, so let me just relate what she is up to these days. With long time friend James Levine, Ms. Norman is in the midst of presenting three recitals at Carnegie Hall known as the Songbook Series. The twist of these evenings is that the programs are not decided upon by the performers until the morning of the recital, the theory being that the approach to the performance will be correspondingly fresh and the interest of the audience suitably piqued. Carnegie Hall provides all of its guests with a handsome volume containing the bilingual lyrics of all of the possible sets of lieder in advance and the hastily inserted bill of fare refers to the appropriate page numbers. All of this lends a certain musicale atmosphere to the events and the overall feel is that of Jimmy and Jessye making music for a few thousand select old friends.

The voice has grown into a marvel of polished gemmosity, each tone a new flowering. It has developed a certain dusky, husky charm and softened considerably, the program assiduously designed to not produce a loud moment but rather hundreds of full ones. Ms. Norman is one of those rare denizens of the operatic stage who can make the difficult transition to lieder without appearing to be lost or uncomfortable. Her theater training shows in her ability to act with her voice and also to traverse the blue air between performer and audience with seeming ease, cloaking the great skill necessary to appear so familiarly at leisure. Old habits die hard, however, and she makes too much use of the extension of her hand palm up, in what Toscanini used to call the “is it raining?” gesture, but her genius is that she makes each audience member feel as if she were singing just for them and that they individually were in on the secret with her of the inner meaning of the passage at hand. In her first set of Beethoven songs, the nobility of the text shone through superbly and immediately we were all aware of the import of the evening.

Ms. Norman has stated on several occasions that the roles she would most like to have developed were those of Brunnhilde and Isolde, but that she was self aware enough to know that she would never have the endurance necessary to pull them off (the poor thing is just about capable of walking out to center stage). Her most operatic moments of this recital came in the Wagner, which she sang to perfection. It helps to have perhaps his greatest living exponent as your accompanist, and their combined performance of Im Treibhaus, with its sorrowful theme later to appear as the cornerstone of Act Three of Tristan, was alone worth the rather hefty price of admission. Being able to carry off these extremely emotional pieces while never raising your voice is a great feat indeed and, coupled with Norman’s uncanny ability to be clearly heard in the back of the balcony even at a pianissimo, the acoustical phenomenon itself was extraordinary.

I have always felt that Ms. Norman owns this exotic piece by Ravel, its Greek modalities so foreign to a Western ear. For the only time in this entire recital, she sang one key note above a mezzo forte and the effect was thrilling. The Schoenberg songs are anomalous in his career. When young and desperately poor, he took a position for a time as the manager of a cabaret and enlivened the act himself by composing these risqué ditties which really belong one block west on Broadway. But they were an inspired choice for a finale, as Ms. Norman plied her thespian trade to its limits, winning the crowd over to the point where one whispered “ach…” could send a roar of knowing laughter throughout the hall. Even Levine got into the act, pantomiming his runs and flourishes with exaggerated gestures of ribald bonhomie. As an old soldier in the twelve-tone wars myself, it was gratifying to hear these marvelously naughty versions of Schoenberg each receive a prolonged ovation. This could be Jessye at her apex and 2001 may stand as her personal equivalent to 1066.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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