How fortunate concertgoers are that singers devote the bulk of their time to the concert stage -- Dame Janet Baker and Jessye Norman. Both ladies gave New York recitals in recent weeks.
Both are particularly internal artists. They seek the distilled emotion of a piece, matching the precise sentiment of the word to the very specific musical gesture that sentiment was given by the composer. There is always the danger that such introspective searching can become too cerebral, and in the case of Dame Janet's Carnegie Hall recital, such was often the case. For not only was the dry restraint of her artistry at its most economical, but her program was of mostly demanding, unfamiliar, and not necessarily top-drawer selections. Her Schubert, for instance, had not one song one could classify as major. And the opening Handel and Boyce selections found the mezzo-soprano in less than ideal voice. But by the time she reached the four Lizst songs, she was in better form , though concern should be registered over the tightness in the top. "Die Vatergruft" proved masterful at setting specific mood and sustaining dramatic tension.
Her rapturous approach to Faure songs was offset somewhat with curious, perhaps overrefined but compelling accounts of Copland (three of the "Emily Dickinson" poems) and Ives songs. But it had not added up to one of Dame Janet's most impressive recitals -- until the four encores, which includes a sumptuous "O divine Redeemer" and a sparkling "Had I Jubal's Lyre." And to hear an artist of this insight and perspicacity under any circumstances offers numerous memorable moments. Martin Issep was the model accompanist.
Jessye Norman has made brilliant strides as a concert artist. Her Avery Fisher Hall recital proved an especially fine event. Hers, too, was a demanding program -- a Haydn cantata, five Brahms songs, Ravel's glorious "Chansons Madecasses," and five Richard Strauss songs. There was not a faulty choice in the bunch. The Haydn shows off a range of emotions as it describes -- in monologue form --Naxos. The Ravel is an unrelated series of three poems that found Miss Norman joyous and rapturous in "Nahandove," terrifying ominous in "Aoua!" and tranquilly moving in "Il est doux."
Norman's generous soprano is capable of the most amazing control, from loudest to softest, and a smooth, tapered line in between.
It is almost a tradition nowadays not to announce any encores, just sing them and let the audience guess, no matter how obscure. Miss Norman announced two of hers -- Strauss's "Zueignung" and Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour" -- and let us "guess" the title of the spiritual "Great Day." That trio of offerings was the perfect end to a superb afternoon from another artist who is so adept at distilling emotion and projecting it from the heart. It should be added that cellist Marcy Rosen and flutist Carol Wincenc aided Dalton Baldwin -- the superb accompanist for the afternoon -- in the Ravel.