mon 26/02/2024

Jessye Norman, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Jessye Norman, Royal Festival Hall

Jessye Norman, Royal Festival Hall

The great American soprano should have quit while she was ahead

'Sadly, the voice is a very long way from what it once was'Carol Friedman

There comes a point in almost every great soprano’s career when she tells the world that Tosca, the Marschallin or Isolde be damned: what she wanted to sing all along was The Great American Songbook. This announcement tends to be made - how shall I put this? - later rather than sooner. In Jessye Norman’s defence, in 1987, just five years after her landmark, ultra-luscious recording of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, she recorded a disc of Gershwin, Richard Rodgers et al.

Yet since that recording included her terrifying, never-to-be-forgotten cover of Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” (I kid you not), one approached her “Jessye Norman sings American Masters” with more than a little trepidation.

Swathed in layers of purple silk, her torrent of curls held up and back by a wide headband, her demeanour was as majestically gracious as it has ever been. But that, pretty much, was the end of the good news. Sadly, the voice is a very long way from what it once was. Given that she is 66, that’s both unsurprising and completely forgivable. And were she marshalling reduced resources with intelligence and flair it wouldn’t matter. What was so troubling is that it isn’t just tonal control that has gone; much of her interpretative sensitivity has disappeared along with it.

All the lyrics were printed in the programme, which turned out to be a good thing

The very last thing that a clear-eyed song of hope like Bernstein and Sondheim’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story needs is added decoration. But Norman’s painfully slow interpretation found her adding curled and curdling phrases showing off the singer not the song. A few exceptions notwithstanding, notably a hushed version of Gershwin’s “But Not for Me” in which she made her voice shimmer with resignation, that was the hallmark of the evening.

Her arrangements by her accompanist Mark Markham – according to his biography “widely recognised around the world as one of the great artists of his generation” – didn’t so much support as indulge her. Removing the rhythmic pulse in favour of stately, funereally paced chord progressions allowed Norman to show off a kind of übercrooning with vowels absurdly over-extended to show off a variety of colours. But that not only killed off the momentum of lyrics, it had nothing to do with conveying the meaning the writers had aimed for.

Indeed, despite the entire concert being in English, all the lyrics were printed in the programme, which turned out to be a good thing. Despite long, heavily considered silences between songs in which she appeared to find the mood and/or motivation for each number, she rarely seemed to engage with a lyric. If you didn’t know “Mack the Knife” you’d be none the wiser by the end of her version which was dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald. The latter was more of a swinger than a lyric singer but her famous live version has a consistent energy and authenticity that Norman painfully lacks.

Matters weren’t helped by the fact that her vocal support disappeared before the end of her fourth number, “The Man I Love”, leaving Markham to finish the final phrase alone. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, she pulled everything together for “My Man’s Gone Now” which had more than a flash of the thrilling sound that made her famous. She let rip and the two ends of her voice that had sounded so divorced suddenly connected with each another. The song is from Porgy and Bess and, released from the strain of trying to sing jazz, she suddenly committed to the material and simply lit up. 

Norman dropped down to a thrilling range a contralto would envy

Matters improved in the second half for the simple reason that she used a microphone which freed her to concentrate on the songs rather than struggling to master the instrument which no longer does what she wants. As a result, her version of the traditional lament “Another Man Done Gone” (dedicated to Odetta, a favourite of, among others, Bob Dylan) had real impact. Sung unaccompanied but for ominous, drumbeat-like thumps on the side of piano, Norman dropped down to a thrilling range a contralto would envy. Yet that concentrated, unadorned singing which proved so affecting only pointed up how peculiarly remote most of the rest of the material felt.

Some years ago, I was at a Barbican recital given by Marilyn Horne. Before the final encore, she casually announced out of the blue that this was going to be her last London recital. The news was shocking not least because her voice was still in such good nick. Horne was brave and smart enough to stop when she knew she was about to hit vocal decline. It’s impossible to tell a artist when to quit. But when sections of the Festival Hall audience rose to their feet at the end of this performance, there was a definite sense that what people were really applauding was Jessye Norman’s truly great past.

Jessye Norman performs "September" from Four Last Songs


Twitter is a-gush with Norman fans as though they had been present at the second coming. I could not bear the sadness and left after four songs. I just couldn't stand listening to the champion of the Strauss last songs reduced to poor sooulful wobbles and kitsch embroidery as if supplicating Simon Cowell to put her through to the next round. I am grateful for your review lest neophytes might think that last night they heard the admired Jessye Norman and not the shadow so embarrassingly praised by Twitter today.

well I thought she was AMAZING and what you say is rubbish. the only song I didnt like was 'gone' with the drums that was tedious. better than a lot of actual jazz singer, the scat was wonderful. the very overdone 'summertime' had new life breathed into it/

I agree, totally. It was genuinely dispiriting evening. Even with her diminished resources, I wonder if the repertoire she chose heightened the flaws. I found it a bit of a parody and at several moments had to cover my face in embarrassment. Sitting on a piano stool, hunched over the microphone, singing the slowest arrangements that she could get away with, is not how I want to remember this incredible artist.

Jessye appeared to be having trouble walking and we thought perhaps she was in pain. First 4-5 songs were bad, but after going off for a few minutes she was better. Very sad having seen/heard her in her prime. 2nd half much better when the songs were sotto voce and using a mike.

Sorry David, Anonymous, Charles and Michael, I completely disagree. This was one of the best evenings I've spent in a concert hall - and I've spent many hundreds of evenings in concert halls, both listening to and performing with some of the greatest musicians in the world (I'm a professional singer). Directly contrary to what you say, David, Ms Norman managed her reduced resources beautifully, elegantly and with the supreme musicianship for which she is renowned. You rightly pick out But Not for Me as the highlight of the evening, but the daringly-stretched phrasing, huge colour palette and matchless legato on display there were evident in many of the other items. OK, the 'blockbuster' numbers exposed her limitations, but the more intimate songs, particularly in the second half, more than made up for that. I'm sorry that others were disappointed, but the vast majority of the audience were clearly transported - and we weren't all Twittering neophytes!

I did not attend this recital but I am very sorry to read the mixed review and some comments about Jessye Norman's voice, which was unbeatable when she was in her prime. I believe singers should retire when they are at the top as it is very sad to hear once great singers in their declining vocal years.

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