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The voice of Jessye Norman soars again in trove of unreleased recordings

Soprano Jessye Norman left a number of recordings in the vault at the time of her death. Now some of them have been released for the first time.
Decca Archives
Soprano Jessye Norman left a number of recordings in the vault at the time of her death. Now some of them have been released for the first time.

In the years before her untimely death, Jessye Norman's career was winding down and record executives were nudging the soprano to release a number of her recordings that lay silent in the vaults, some for decades. When she died in 2019 at age 74, those prompts remained unheeded. Now, some of that unheard music is being issued in a three-volume set titled Jessye Norman: The Unreleased Masters. It's an opera lover's treasure trove of superb singing and a reminder that few voices in history gave us such Grand Canyon opulence, vastness and color.

The set is the first collection of new or previously unheard music by Norman released since 2010. The recordings span nearly 10 years, from 1989 to 1998, and cover both familiar ground —Richard Strauss,Wagner andBerlioz — and some uncharted territory in works byHaydn andBritten. It's more than a collection of outtakes. Most of the material here appears as Norman might have released it — in both sensible and surprising combinations — but her perfectionist standards got in the way.

Norman released a recording of Strauss' Four Last Songs in 1982 that is unrivaled in its grandeur, but a live version from seven years later, included in this new set, is swifter and benefits from moving that voluptuous, burgundy voice more forward in the mix. It is a glorious performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it's bewildering as to why Norman never approved it for release. Originally, the Strauss was to be paired with another set of songs, a live 1992 performance of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, which Norman did sanction, but neither saw the light of day. You need only focus on one spot in Wagner's song "Träume," to understand the concentrated beauty of the voice as she unspools a thread of pure gold on a single word, "verglühen" — which means fading.

Jessye Norman was a fearless woman of conscience. As a child, she dared to sit in the "whites only" section at the train station, and later, as a teenager, she integrated lunch counters in her hometown of Augusta, Ga. Norman would become a towering figure in the opera world who carefully sculpted a career on her own terms, choosing music — like perfectly tailored clothing — to fit her majestic instrument. A good example lies in Berlioz's lyric scene La mort de Cléopâtre where the French language adds a ravishing timbre to the music, whether the protagonist is raging in, or resigned to, her captivity.

Cléopâtre was supposed to be part of an early-'90s album — never released — depicting three historic queens, and alongside Haydn's Scena di Berenice and Britten's Phaedra, all three are included in the final disc of this set. Norman never liked the studio mix of the Berlioz, which was tweaked for this release in an attempt to match her exacting standards. Her choice to include Britten is another reminder of the extreme breadth of repertoire she sang throughout her career — everything from Mozart to Schoenberg and spirituals. In Britten's cantata, a late work composed in 1975, she portrays Phaedra, the queen of Athens who decides to poison herself to the accompaniment of a creepy harpsichord. As with any language she chose to sing, Norman's diction here is precise and dramatically nuanced.

The Mount Everest for Norman would always be the lead role in Wagner's massive Tristan und Isolde. She had flirted with it by recording Isolde's transcendent "Liebestod" on three occasions. Knowing she would never sing the full opera on stage, Norman headed into the recording studio in 1998. But the sessions with conductor Kurt Masur grew contentious and she gave up. Still, there are 67 minutes of excerpts on this set, including a heavenly love duet with tenor Thomas Moser, and another luxurious rendition of the "Liebestod."

Although Jessye Norman never officially approved all of the recordings in this set, her family eventually did. And for that we are grateful — to be able to hear the magnificent voice soar once again.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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