The greatness of music speaks for itself when Jessye Norman sings. In a recital at the Kennedy Center Saturday night, the soprano traversed the repertory from Haydn to Berg, and through it all there was that rare combination of ravising beauty and impeccable taste. Her huge voice is a velvet wonder, totally seamless when she so desires. Yet she can also mold it to fit each style with an uncanny penchant for definitive creations.
First there was a majestic reading of Haydn's cantata "Arianna a Naxos," where the soprano's command of the classic idiom was only a trill short of prefection. One's ears could hardly believe the size and agility of the voice, the accuracy of the attacks. And only a surprising use of chest tones in the final section varied the long line of the work.
Berg's "Seven Early Songs" followed. In a fresh and unusual performance, Norman varied her voice, using portato in her approach to phrases in "Nacht" and even allowing her softer notes to become less focused. Rather than stressing Berg's melodic relation to Mahler and structural debt to Brahms, Norman's interpretation looked ahead to Berg's unique musical future. The Concert Hall filled with the sounds of rosebuds bursting open in "Die Nachtigall." And in "Im Zimmer," the earliest of this revolutionary 1905 set, she gently shaped this tale of love and autumn sunshine, almost whispering its lovely finale.
After songs of Brahms and Wolf, and after two encores by Strauss, the audience still did not let Norman go. She then brought out pianist Phillip Moll once again and answered her public with Erik Satie's light and melancholy waltz, "Je te veux."