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Portrait of the Artist, Part Two

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/01/2001 -  
Franz Schubert: Five Songs
Alban Berg: Seven Early Songs
Richard Strauss: Five Songs
Hugo Wolf: from The Italian Lieder Book

Jessye Norman (soprano)
James Levine (piano)

It is easy to become jaded living in New York and having the opportunity to hear great music performed magnificently night after night. In this rarified atmosphere, it is not an easy task to stand above the crowd, to present a program unique not so much in quality as in significance. There are, however, evenings with a decided star turn when something special happens and the atmosphere between performer and educated listener is positively vibrant. Such an event occurred last night at venerable Carnegie Hall. Although the management opted for a judicious use of the spotlight, this was hardly necessary because the soloist glowed with her own aura of artistry and presence. In an inspired bit of business, these recitals have an unusual format: no one knows what is on the menu until the doors open and the stately songbook is handed out by the ushers. In the night’s program itself is an unassuming insert and it is this little scrap of paper which holds the key to the much anticipated mystery. Since her first recital on Saturday, I have been on pins and needles waiting to read what she will perform this night. Imagine my delight when I read a program that seems to have been picked by my own inner self and, to make the experience complete, these Viennese songs will be sung by the great Jessye Norman.

This consummate artist must have been feeling quite feisty in the morning, for she chose sets of songs which would challenge her to test the limits of her tessitura as well as her dynamic range. Driven by the intense accompaniment of James Levine, Ms. Norman presented a garden of Schubertian verses, not in a quietly lyrical style but rather in the most dramatic manner possible. The voice flirted with the edge of heaviness but always pulled back just enough to stay heroically focused. Coupled with this diva’s exceptional abilities to act with both her voice and her face, these moments were thrilling, her interpretation of Gretchen am Spinnrade, with its incredible longings and horrible frights juxtaposed against Levine’s febrile perpetuum mobile, almost crossing the line from great art to intimate psychotherapy. That was me up there drowning in the waters of Destiny, or, at least, so it seemed during these electric moments.

The only composer who tugs at my heart more intrusively than Schubert is Berg and Ms. Norman’s reading of the Sieben fruehe Lieder was extraordinary. Not at all timid or cautious, her “gib acht” soared to the upper balcony quite strongly. She made the difficult transitions in the score appear natural and easy, reminding me of Glenn Gould’s theory that if infants were brought up on Berg and Webern rather than standard nursery fare, then they would think that these types of intervals were the most beautiful of all. But a fine and charismatic career hasn’t brought only joy to this superstar. The curse of her intense popularity is that her concerts are filled with listeners unfamiliar with the finer points of classical music. Even though she begged them with gestures, they continued to applaud after each and every song, breaking the mysterious mood so laboriously established by the composer. The tug of war between artistic space and audience adulation was indeed so insoluble that Ara Guzelimian, Carnegie’s major-domo, had to come out before the start of the second half and beg the patrons to hold their applause until the end of each set of pieces (considering the apparently deplorable physical condition of both of these performers, who, quite unfortunately, appear old before their time, I expected that he was there to announce that at least one of them couldn’t finish the recital). Coupled with the epidemic of cellular telephones going off, the intrusive applause presented a huge challenge for the pair on stage and yet there never seemed to be any wavering on their part.

The highlight of the evening was a stentorian performance of the Strauss song Befreit, forever putting the lie to the criticism that Ms. Norman has a tiny voice. She is not endowed with the most powerful instrument among the current crop of sopranos, but she is an expert in maximizing its productivity. More than once, she achieved extra volume in higher notes by sucking in rather than expelling her air (I apologize for not knowing the technical term for this) and was especially ravishing in the lower register. The final set of Wolf airs was designed to show off her coquettish side and left us all feeling close to her, as if she were our own dear friend (she created the same impression in the first recital in this series with her ending cabaret set of Schoenberg).

But ultimately it is not about the singing. Something very unusual is going on here. While my colleague in the local rag groused that Carnegie should not have given out songbooks to the crowd because someone dropped theirs during the first recital, I for one am rather transported by the entire Jessye Norman experience, even including the comportment of the crowd. Here at Carnegie it is as if we are all present at an historic concert, the kind that one reads about in music history books. Innovative, fresh, daring indeed; warm, expressive, personal to be sure. These nights are ones for the ages. In an age where even the word diva has been stolen by the relentless pop machine, it is good to know that we still have the real thing in our camp.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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