• Alexander's Playlist: Remembering Jessye Norman

    By Alexander Neef

    General Director Alexander Neef shares his favourite music recordings in this series of weekly recommendations.


    I want to devote this week’s album recommendation to an absolutely breathtaking artist: Jessye Norman, the legendary singer whose voice was once described by the New York Times as a “grand mansion of sound.”

    Jessye, who sadly passed away last fall, has been on my mind a lot these days. I had the pleasure of interviewing her in Toronto in February 2019 as part of TIFF’s “In Conversation With…” series; I treasure this memory and conversation, especially in light of Jessye’s generosity in discussing the many, many sides of her life as an artist, including her leadership as one of opera’s great Black stars.

    Indeed, there are so many sides to Jessye Norman that I found I couldn’t pick just one recording for this week’s edition. So instead, I wanted to give a pair of contrasting pieces, beginning with the gold standard of gold standards: her unforgettable rendition of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Her sense of dramatic expression, the endless breath control…it’s simply a masterpiece, and in my opinion it is the best Four Last Songs on record.

    As a complementary pairing, I’d like to offer Les chemins de l'amour, a collection of songs by French composers including Henri Duparc, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, and Erik Satie. While Jessye was larger than life in every project she took on, this recording lets us into her more intimate side, with lighter material and some tongue-in-cheek songs sprinkled in. It is a special pleasure to hear the care and expressive shaping that she takes with the language in this collection.

    Finally, as a bonus recommendation, I want to highlight the jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, who Jessye Norman selected in 2018 as the recipient of The Glenn Gould Protégé Prize. (I was proud to see both Jessye and Cécile receiving their prizes on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in 2019 as part of the official Glenn Gould Foundation gala celebrations). To Jessye, Cécile McLorin Salvant represented the next generation of singers and when you hear her voice in this recording, you’ll immediately recognize how special it is: incredibly subtle, and totally original. I recommend her third album, For One to Love, as a virtuosic showcase of an artist in total control of her craft.

    ––Alexander Neef


    R. Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder, Four Last Songs
    Jessye Norman, soprano
    Kurt Masur, conductor
    Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
    Philips/Universal, 1983




    Les chemins de l'amour - Songs by Duparc, Ravel, Poulenc, Satie
    Jessye Norman, soprano
    Dalton Baldwin, pianist
    Philips/Universal, 1976




    For One to Love
    Cécile McLorin Salvant
    Mack Avenue, 2015

    Posted in Alexander's Playlist

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