An imposing presence and dramatic event all by herself, Jessye Norman is at it again in Carnegie Hall, doing things her way. This time, with James Levine at the piano, Norman is presenting what she calls her intimate “Songbook Series,” three recitals with a twist that might seem to tempt fate. Instead of putting the programs together in advance, these longtime collaborators plan to wait for inspiration to strike at the last moment and then decide what to perform. The idea, apparently, is to emulate the jazz singer, whose spontaneity and vocal creative freedom are qualities that Norman says she has always admired and envied. Her fans have also been invited to join in the impromptu spirit of the occasion by perusing, in advance on Carnegie Hall’s Website, a selection of songs from Norman’s repertory and voting for the ones they would like to hear as encores.

For anyone who has followed this career over the past 30 years, the idea of such an improvised recital format must seem rather paradoxical. After all, few singers have planned their entire artistic progress as deliberately or self-consciously as Jessye Norman, choosing operatic roles, concert appearances, and special projects carefully tailored to showcase a larger-than-life voice and musical persona that calculates every effect down to the last vocal gesture and facial expression. What Norman’s attitudinizing has mainly communicated over the years is the hauteur and stately grandeur of a diva who would never dream of risking anything for the sake of “the moment.”

Take the trajectory of Norman’s Metropolitan Opera career, lovingly supervised by Levine himself, from her 1983 debut as Berlioz’s monumental Cassandra and later as Dido, through Strauss’s Ariadne and three Wagner heroines (Elisabeth, Sieglinde, and Kundry), to her most recent and possibly last Met role, Janacek’s Emilia Marty a few seasons ago. For some of us who applauded it at the start, this journey so promisingly launched soon began to turn sour as Norman’s opulent voice aged and lost much of its security and, what seemed even worse, her once generous manner became increasingly studied and artificial. These liabilities were even more apparent when Norman appeared on the concert stage, giving recitals that over the years have atrophied into grandiose rituals that push music far into the background.

I had hoped these three off-the-cuff recitals might help reverse all that, or at the very least provide a memento of the fresh young singer who disarmed those who encountered her back in the seventies. But no, the first recital was pretty much business as usual. The program, decided upon early enough to be printed on a program insert, contained no surprises. Nor did Norman’s singing indicate any rejuvenation. Beethoven’s six Gellert lieder were hobbled by bad intonation, while the cautious note-to-note rendition of Wagner’s Wesendonk songs lacked any sense of their sensuous wonder. The voice sounded more warmed up in Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Schoenberg’s cabaret songs, even though the interpretations were strictly from the hothouse, while the three encores displayed a singer who, if nothing else, knows how to work an audience.

A lavish souvenir booklet distributed free of charge contains the Songbook texts, gushing articles about the two artists, and many press photos of Norman and Levine as they looked twenty years ago. That only added to the synthetic and – dare it be said? – phony atmosphere of an occasion that had much more to do with posing and ego gratification than with music.

At the age of 75, Hans Werner Henze has already broken the Ninth Symphony jinx, one that must haunt any composer who still chooses to cultivate the form in quantity. After all, Beethoven’s Ninth, the most famous of them all, was the composer’s last, while Bruckner never managed to finish his No. 9 and Mahler was still at work on his Tenth when he died. Henze, however, has now safely completed ten symphonies and no doubt a No. 11 is in the works. Meanwhile, his Ninth is making the rounds. First heard in Berlin in 1997, the work recently received its U.S. premiere in Avery Fisher Hall, brilliantly performed by the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur and with the composer in attendance.

Like the Beethoven Ninth, Henze’s is a choral symphony and a major statement, although hardly an ode to joy. This score, which the composer calls “the most extreme experience I have ever had … the summa summarum of my musical oeuvre,” was born from his memories of Nazi Germany and conscription into the army as a teenager near the end of the war. The text uses poems by Hans-Ulrich Treichel based on incidents in Anna Seghers’s novel The Seventh Cross (made into a memorable 1944 film with Spencer Tracy), which relate the fates of seven condemned prisoners who escape from a concentration camp. Six either die or are recaptured, but the seventh, after a series of ghastly adventures, boards a Dutch ship on the Rhine and reaches freedom – a deceptively upbeat finale, since the music clearly tells us that the horror of it all could easily come again.

Each of the seven sections depicts a vividly dramatic scene or incident: the terrorized prisoner in flight, his savage persecutors, the poetic dialogue of the plane trees before they are ruthlessly hacked down and fashioned into crosses, the poignant death of a comrade who falls from a roof like a wounded eagle, the black cathedral vision where voices of the dead voluptuously praise torture and martyrdom while a crucified Christ remains silent.

Henze is correct – this uncompromising piece is the imposing sum of his compositional voice, integrating the “wild, free beauty” of his youthful style with the unforgiving, hard-edged precision of the music he wrote during his social-activist middle years. The eloquent choral gestures and dazzling instrumental colors fearlessly explore every extreme emotion bared by the text, and the overall impact of the score is devastating. Much of the credit for this goes to the Berlin Radio Choir, which by now has made a specialty of the Henze Ninth; their virtuosity in this performance was even more awesome than it is on the superlative live world-premiere recording from EMI Classics.

Jessye Norman
Recitals at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by James Levine at the piano.
Hans Werner Henze
Symphony No. 9, with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Kurt Masur.