There was a limit to what one heard from the soloist at last night's concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. She was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and she was singing Mozart. Her performance lasted less than 30 minutes, and the mighty soprano was performing only nonoperatic Mozart -- the rigorous motet "Exultate, jubilate," K. 165, and the brief but sumptuous "Laudate Dominum" from "Vesperae solonnes de confessore," K. 339.
Te Kanawa was in resplendent voice. Her agility, and her perfection of pitch, have surely never shown with greater brilliance than in the excruciatingly difficult "Alleluia!" from the motet, with its wide leaps. Te Kanawa may not have the last word in coloratura runs (though she is impressive), but her capacity to land right on target when shooting for a note that is miles away leaves one breathless. She also has that rare gift among current singers, a real trill.
As if to prove this point, Te Kanawa sang the "Alleluia!" twice, once in context and once as an encore. The second time around she was a little more uninhibited, and a little more dazzling; she was hitting the notes with greater freedom.
Aside from being exactly on a note, Te Kanawa has a characteristic capacity to focus it. The haunting resonance that she brought to the opening of the "Laudate" was quite foreign to the sounds she brought to the motet (listen to how she uses that resonance, with a normally straightforward voice, in the much-lauded recording of Strauss' "Four Last Songs").
Te Kanawa's phrasing was splendidly pointed. She brought just as much intensity to these relatively poised religious works as she does to Countess Almaviva's two searching arias in "The Marriage of Figaro."
Before the two works sung by Te Kanawa came a more troubled Mozart piece, the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546. It's hard to think of a Mozart composition that sounds more like Beethoven -- in the fugue, especially. The orchestra's performance, as in the two vocal works, was a touch tepid.
The Detroit Symphony, under its new music director, Gunther Herbig, came into its own in the concert's second half, playing the stirring Bruckner Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, "Romantic," a well-made example of Wagnerism in symphonic form. Bruckner's juxtaposition of grandeur and intimacy -- based in precise dynamics and solo phrasing -- sounded quite assured.