Music Review: Emma Kirkby and Jakob Lindberg at the National Gallery of Art

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Few voices in the early-music field are as immediately recognizable as Emma Kirkby's. The soprano's pure, piping tone -- like that of a particularly secure and expressive boy treble -- has remained remarkably intact over her nearly 40-year career, and sounded as bright and vernal as it ever has during a recital Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

My proximity to the stage made it hard to judge whether the West Garden Court's over-ample acoustics helped or hurt Kirkby's audibility. Hers is a notably small voice, and here she was partnered with Jakob Lindberg on lute (one of the most unassertive of instruments). Indeed, there were times during the first half of the program, as the two were performing a selection of exquisitely doleful songs (and four solo lute pieces) by Shakespeare contemporary John Dowland, when the effect was like overhearing a hushed conversation taking place in the corner of a large church. One hopes that their gentle utterances carried to the back of the capacity audience, as the chiseled beauty and dovetailing rapport in their musicmaking was a joy to hear.

A second half devoted to baroque composer Henry Purcell's ornately decorated, more overtly theatrical songs brought the same pearly tone from Kirkby, along with an expanded palette of volume and emotion. (Her limning of the love-crazed "Bess of Bedlam" was a particular delight.) Lindberg played his own arrangements of six Purcell pieces with a flexibility of meter and a suppleness worthy of his heady reputation in the early-music world.

-- Joe Banno

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