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Sublime songbird Jessye Norman enchants, entranced her audience

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JESSYE NORMAN

Works by Strauss, Wolf,

Ravel, and Duparc.

Mechanics Hall, Wednesday, March 1.

By JULIAN WEST

FRESH FROM A TRIUMPHANT RUN in the Bartok/Schoenberg double bill at the Metropolitan Opera, Jessye Norman is also finding time for a dizzying tour of recitals and engagements with eight orchestras. Her only New England stop was at Mechanics Hall on Wednesday night. The evening was evenly split with German music before the intermission and French music afterwards.

The songs by Richard Strauss which began the program were of varying quality. This was early Strauss, some of it dating from his teenage years. The most pleasing of the five selections were the two from Op. 15, "Lob des Leidens (In Praise of Sorrow)" and "Heimkehr (Homecoming)." Each allowed Norman to showcase her impressive vocal talents, and in several phrases she was called on to pass seamlessly over her full range.

The final Strauss piece, "Nichts," was much lighter, and Norman rendered it as a sort of musical joke, gently dissipating the somber mood produced by her earlier selections.

Passages from the Spanish Songbook of Hugo Wolf followed. These were likewise delightful and ranged from the melancholy to the gently passionate.

On balance, the French half of the program was a little stronger. Although audiences are more familiar with Norman's German repertoire, she has also sung French opera, and her articulation is flawless in both languages.

The splendid, sensual, "Scheherezade" by Maurice Ravel is indulgently orchestrated for soprano, piano and flute, a dreamy and exotic combination. The flute playing of Linda Chesis was kick-ass splendid, and Phillip Moll's piano accompaniment was also excellent. Moll makes a fine accompanist; he is sure but unobtrusive and responsive to his singer.

The four songs of Henri Duparc which closed the program must have been a revelation to many. Duparc had a tragically short creative life, and his reputation rests almost entirely on twelve songs. These were as effective as anything heard earlier, and the two selections written by Baudelaire were surpassingly beautiful. Here Norman's voice was at its sweetest and most seductive.

The encores were well-chosen and included one more song by Strauss, "Cecelia." Norman ended the evening, as is her habit, with traditional American songs. She performed "Deep River" and "Get on Board," and for these she seemed more relaxed and genuinely moved by the spirit of the music. After "Deep River," which again revealed the strength of Norman's lower range, there was a tangible pause as she recovered from the spell she had cast. The audience, too, will remain spellbound for some time to come.