There was a sense of safety in the rich, majestic, capacious voice of Jessye Norman, who died on Monday at 74. To have lost her is to have lost some part of that safety, too, which may have been one reason for the intensity of feeling that greeted the news of her death.
[Read the obituary for Ms. Norman, and our critics appraisal of her career.]
A fellow diva, Rene Fleming, called it a stunning, saddening loss on Twitter, posting a classic live recording of Ms. Norman singing the Liebestod from Wagners Tristan und Isolde. Yuval Sharon, who directed a foray into John Cage late in her career, shared on Facebook her commanding, committed Jocasta in Stravinskys Oedipus Rex.
More Wagner, as well as gorgeous renditions of Ms. Normans beloved Strauss and other composers, are on offer here, in selections by our critics and writers of some of her greatest performances. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Strauss: Four Last Songs
Was there ever a singer more suited to Strauss than Ms. Norman? Probably not, and in no music more than the Four Last Songs. Theres an extraordinary video online of her singing them with Wolfgang Sawallisch, but her studio recording remains without equal, backed by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, in unimaginably plush form.
Nobility, strength, power: Its all here. At the end of Beim Schlafengehen, as she sings of a soul unwatched soar into immortality, her voice lights the sky with defiant, unbounded joy. At the end of September, its her quiet, touching delicacy that shocks and enthralls.
And yet it is Im Abendrot that she inhabits most thoroughly: its lines unending, its spirit unyielding even as time takes its toll. DAVID ALLEN
Wagner: Die Walkre
It is one of the pivotal moments of Wagners Ring cycle and Ms. Norman defined it for me since I first heard the cycle live in the opera house. It comes near the end of Die Walkre, the second opera, when the bereft Sieglinde, who has just lost her lover, learns she is pregnant with his child. She goes from longing for death to fighting for life. Then, in a beatific, transcendent moment, she thanks Brnnhilde for helping her escape to safety so she can give birth to the young hero.
The way Ms. Norman sang it, her line of gratitude O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid! (O noblest wonder! Most glorious maiden!) unspooled in an almost unimaginable torrent of powerful, rich, huge, pure sound. She hit every note cleanly; it was aural radiance. MICHAEL COOPER
Ms. Normans queenly quality, her larger-than-lifeness, suited her for myth: She didnt have to act! But since there wasnt anything ethereal about her full-bodied (though luminous and levitating) sound, the effect was that of both mortal and deity, an earth goddess. She can be intimate here, telling a story across a campfire, and then suddenly shes unfurling across the millenniums. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Behold: one of the great spectacles of our age. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, on July 14, 1989, the French government chose Ms. Norman as its Marianne. Dressed in a sweeping, hooded tricolor cape designed by Azzedine Alaa, and stalking like an animate statue the very embodiment of libert around the base of the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, she announced La Marseillaise not as history, but as living truth. ZACHARY WOOLFE
And now for something completely different, though still in Ms. Normans pungent French. Better known for authority, she was also adept at the brand of dreaminess that permeates Debussys embrace of being alive in a sunset. Shes joined by one of her best partners, James Levine, whose pianism is as elegant as her singing. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Some singers speaking voices are far removed from the ones they produce in song. But when I interviewed Jessye Norman in 2009, I was struck by the beauty of her diction: each consonant polished, each word uttered in a resonant, inky tone. The dignity and gravitas she projected onstage were qualities she carried with her everywhere.
The first notes Ms. Norman sings in Mahlers Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, from the song cycle Rckert-Lieder, are rooted in that deep, noble register. The song is about renunciation, and its patient vocal lines require extraordinary control and restraint. I am dead to the worlds tumult and rest in a quiet domain, she sings, beginning here at 4:30. Listen to how, on the word ruh (rest), she seems to stop time altogether with a voice that sounds drained of all ego, the pure sublimation of lonely, hard-won dignity. CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Before I knew the range that Ms. Norman was capable of Wagnerian grandeur, French delicacy, moving spirituals I first fell, like so many others, for her famous (perhaps definitive) recording of Strausss Four Last Songs. I was so obsessed with it that for a long time I didnt fully appreciate the other treasures on the album, especially Morgen. This song is easy to come by, but a performance like Ms. Normans isnt. Her trademark clarity is there, but her voice is more modest, kept at a muted glow throughout like a gentle sunrise, wrapping each phrase in a ray of warm light. JOSHUA BARONE
The New York Timess obituary for Ms. Norman quotes a 1992 review by Edward Rothstein in which he refers to her a voice as a grand mansion of sound. You dont need to look any further than her Dich, teure Halle, from Wagners Tannhuser, to see why. Here she is at Carnegie Hall, singing with the New York Philharmonic under James Levine, completely upstaging a full orchestra in her ecstatic and effortlessly majestic entrance. But even in a concert performance, her dramatic gifts are on display as the opening gives way to a quieter, haunted pain when she recalls Tannhusers absence, then the joy of remembering his return. In musical rapture her voice takes flight, and it feels like youve been swept into the stratosphere with her. JOSHUA BARONE
Recorded as if she were singing in the middle of a huge, empty plain, the voice is grand here spacious and silken, a dark molten pool but never affected. The song is a single thought, intently communicated (listen to the urgency with which she lands on was ich near the end), as if the most important thing to say in the world is give thanks. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Hes Got the Whole World in His Hands
The gentle, caressing lightness of the beginning, like shes sharing the secret that will save your life, turns insouciant, and almost witty when she mentions the birds and the bees right in His hand. But its not a secret for long: The good word is something to shout from the rooftops, and Ms. Normans rendition builds to controlled whoops of ecstasy, capped by one of the most memorably flung-out high-note bolts youll ever hear. ZACHARY WOOLFE
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