Four Last Songs
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
Jessye Norman was renowned for her interpretations of Strauss’s sumptuous Four Last Songs. They are performed here with a wonderful depth of emotion by Jessye Norman alongside Kurt Masur’s Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which we named one of the world’s best orchestras. Strauss wrote his Four Last Songs as he was nearing the end of his life, conveying a sense of calm and acceptance towards death, a sentiment that is perfectly conveyed by Norman’s rich and mature tone.
Her phrases are beautifully smooth and expansive, and she seems to effortlessly glide up to the high notes. The slower-than-usual tempo gives the songs a real sense of space appropriate to the poignancy of the text.
Dido and Aeneas
Derek Lee Ragin etc; English Chamber Orchestra/Raymond Leppard
In this recording of Purcell’s masterpiece, recorded in 1986, Jessye Norman sings the title role of Dido. The opera tells the story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage and her despair upon her abandonment by the Trojan hero Aeneas with whom she has fallen in love. A somewhat indulgent interpretation, the expressive features of her vocal line are beautifully shaped to capture the stoicism and nobility of her character whilst equally capturing the underlying vulnerability.
This is especially notable in ‘Dido’s Lament’, where the full range of her vocal qualities are demonstrated and executed with absolute control, from the whispered final line of the opening recitative to the climactic and powerful high ‘G’ on her final utterance of ‘remember me’.
Spirituals in Concert
Battle, Norman, Levine et Et Al; Orchestra/Chorus/James Levine
Deutsche Grammophon 429790
Norman began her singing career at the age of four, singing gospel songs in her local church. In this recording from 1991, Norman teams up with soprano Kathleen Battle to play homage to African-American music in a concert of spirituals. The concert opens with a lively and uplifting duet, ‘In That Great Getting Up Morning’, showcasing the incredible vocal pyrotechnics of both singers alongside full chorus and orchestra.
In contrast, Norman’s soulful rendition of ‘Deep River’ is sung with a beautifully simple organ accompaniment. It is executed without vocal frills, capturing the purity of the music. The richness of her lower register is particularly impressive here.
La Belle Helene
Charles Burles etc; Toulouse Capitole Orchestra/Toulouse Capitole Chorus/Micheal Plasson
EMI Classics 395108
Jessye Norman plays the title role in this recording of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène. The piece is a parody of the story of Helen of Troy’s elopement with Paris, which started the Trojan War. Norman’s portrayal of Helen is very much that of a ‘husky, smoky-voiced vamp’ (Ralph More), executing the dialogue with a fantastic sense of comic timing.
Vocal highlights include the arias ‘Amours divins’ (Divine loves) and ‘On me nomme Hélène la blonde’ (they call me Helen the blonde).
Erwartung; Brettl Lieder
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine (piano)
This recording features two works that show off very different sides to Schoenberg. The first half of the disc features Schoenberg’s six Brettl Lieder (Caberet Songs) written in 1901, revealing an unexpected part of Schoenberg’s musical personality with influences from popular music of the time. In this recording, Norman shows a different side to her voice, performing the songs with a charming lightness of tone and airiness.
On the other hand, his one-act monodrama, Erwartung is the epitome of musical expressionism, staged as a one-act female monologue. Norman’s performance in the monodrama in 1989 with the Metropolitan Opera marked the company’s first single-character production. Norman’s theatrical performance expertly demonstrates the full capabilities of the human voice, capturing a whole range of human emotions.
Ariadne auf Naxos (DVD)
James King etc; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine
Deutsche Grammophon 073028
Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos blends the traditions of commedia dell’arte and opera seria in this charming play-within-a-play. In this production, recorded at the Metropolitan Opera in 1988, Norman plays the title role of Ariadne. Norman’s monumental stage presence and powerful voice perfectly captures the regal character of Ariadne. Her voice sometimes takes on a more intimate tone, demonstrating the complexities of her character, as demonstrated by her performance of the aria ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ (There is a Kingdom).