Thankfully some care has been taken to bring together recordings of compatible repertoire, whether it be a set of live recitals, another focusing on stark modernism (Schoenberg and Stravinsky), or two of her Christmas holiday extravaganzas. The singer’s ample gifts are on display on every set—but whether one has the appetite to devour a heaping platter of 5 of the sets in succession really depends on a strong preference for her voice of dark chocolate laced with honey. In the right amounts, what a stunning treat. In excess—an unhealthy wallow.
Each of the sets presents the original cover art for the CDs (except for A Wagner Collection, the second CD of which contains a compilation of excerpts from complete opera recordings). The original liner notes accompany a biographical note, reprinted in every set, which details Ms. Norman’s concert appearances in recent years and many honors bestowed on her. The prose here wanders fearfully close to obituary mode, but then an air of a “career achievement” retrospective covers the whole enterprise.
Of the five sets under review, your reviewer found the Live at Hohenems & Salzburg Recital set most enjoyable. The amount of applause recorded on the former could have been cut back, but tolerance wins the day, as the singer is in exemplary voice, in repertoire starting with Handel, working up to a large Schubert sampling, and ending with spirituals as encores. Few will want to hear Lascia ch’io pianga always sung with this ostentatious gorgeousness, but why not once in a while? Norman makes a substantial case for giving into temptation.
The second disc, with James Levine in impeccable accompaniment, has very disciplined but lively Wolf lieder, broken up with 5 satisfying dollops of Debussy.
The studio lieder sets (Schubert & Mahler Lieder) can’t be faulted for not possessing the extra aura of vitality a live recording bestows, but a sense of formality and restraint comes over both recordings at times.
The Wagner set has a first disc of rather short duration, with Colin Davis leading the LSO in the Tristan und Isolde prelude before Norman’s self-conscious but exquisite love death. A fine performance of the Wesendonk lieder follows. On the second disc, the excerpts from Parsifal, Lohengrin, and Die Walkure partner Norman with Placido Domingo for the first two and Gary Lakes for the last. The Norman voice exhibits its full power here—in company with a certain remoteness from the drama. Perhaps she is not helped her by a tentative quality in Domingo and Lakes’s adequate but uninspiring contribution.
Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex has never come close to giving the Firebird or Le Sacre du Printemps any competition as one of the composer’s most popular pieces, but those who respond to the work can surely find much to value in Seiji Ozawa's recording, with Peter Schreier in the title role and a young Bryn Terfel as Creon. Norman’s refulgent tone here offers some aural compensation for those unenamored of Stravinsky’s dry approach. The second disc has Norman’s offering similar virtues to Schoenberg’s Erwartung, 25 minutes of a woman losing her mind in atonal agony. Many will sympathize. Several of the composer’s cabaret songs end the set with a sense of humor and style Schoenberg not too frequently allowed himself. Or us.
The last of these five sets will separate the Norman besotted from the Norman tolerant. Disc one, Christmastide, will fill the former with a grand, exuberant expression of the holiday spirit. The latter will cringe in pain and moan in despair at the lugubrious ballads and manic up-tempo numbers. And Philips has to release a larger version of that cover photo, for the perversely curious. What is going on with the singer’s hair? The Bride of Frankenstein would look askance. In the Spirit, the second disc, thankfully redeems the first (or supplements it beautifully, for those fans). Here the arrangements have taste and restraint, and Norman’s singing revels in the finer music, truly offering reason to be grateful.
Philips has several more of these two-disc sets, including Norman’s luxuriant Strauss and a compilation of her forays into spirituals. The best singing on the sets has an incomparable grandeur and beauty, so new comers to her art have many a treat in store for them. Her fans probably have most if not all of these already, and for those indifferent to the pleasures of releasing oneself into the all-encompassing embrace of her immense gift—they can skip these collections as they did the first time. Many great singers engender such a wide-range of responses, and Jessye Norman’s huge career deserves this generously proportioned celebration.
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy