Kathleen Battle Sings Bach

Kathleen Battle’s concert at Alice Tully Hall last night seemed almost a conscious rejection of the song recital format. There were no French or Italian songs, no lieder, no operatic extracts, but in their place, Bach, spirituals and jazz.

Miss Battle is already a solid star in the opera and orchestra world, and she seemed to be widening her range as a performer with this curious yet intriguing collection of music. She was joined on stage by some high- powered friends, among them James Levine conducting a small string ensemble, Hubert Laws, the flutist, and Wynton Marsalis, a young trumpet player increasingly celebrated for his ability in several vastly different styles of music.

The two Bach cantatas at the beginning – ‘‘Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!’‘ and ‘‘Non sa che sia dolore’‘ – represented an act of self-effacement on Miss Battle’s part. Bach’s vocal writing expects its singers – and often unfairly so – to possess the same easy flexibility as an oboist or string player; and as a result, both these pieces exact great effort and demand solid technical ability without ever flattering the voice. Miss Battle wrestled and subdued Bach’s harshly angular vocal lines with admirable success, and perhaps the nicest compliment one can pay her is to note how naturally her voice blended with the other instruments on stage.

Notable in this ensemble was, first of all, Laurie Smukler’s ardent violin, though she was not listed among the principal players. Mr. Laws, on the other hand, played the flute in the second of the two cantatas with a wan tone and a tentative musicality, indeed almost defensively. In the case of Mr. Marsalis, one could argue the appropriateness of his creamy legato playing to Baroque style, but no one could deny the elegant 20th-century beauty of his sound.

The rest of the music seemed to treat both singer and musicians a little more graciously. In elaborate chamber-orchestra settings of two spirituals – ‘‘Amazing Grace’‘ and ‘‘Fix me, Jesus’‘ – Miss Battle sang with an absolutely beautiful sustained legato and, musically, she managed to move us considerably. Here Mr. Laws, with his gracefully embellished melodies and confident approach, seemed much more at ease.

There was also a lovely interlude with Mr. Marsalis and four jazz colleagues – Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Charnette Moffett and Jeffrey Watts. Mr. Marsalis’s deft arrangement of the Thelonious Monk song ‘‘Think of One’‘ featured wonderful sforzato surprises, witty silences and a chameleon-like sense of tempo. Afterward, Miss Battle joined some of these players in Duke Ellington’s ‘‘Creole Love Call.’‘ She slid between pitches with the naturalness of a true blues performer, but her voice, no matter how much she tried to alter it here, seemed overly pure and penetrating. Operatic technique is built to carry musical messages over considerable distances without outside aid. The Ellington singing style has a gruffer intimacy, the kind that electric amplification makes possible. These are two vocal idioms which sit uneasily together.

by Bernanrd Holland
Source: The New York Times

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