The spaces between

A fleeting glimpse of a renowned soprano ignited Peter Crisp's lifelong love of song cycles and lieder...but left him pining for an overture

March 29, 2012

I saw Jessye Norman once. Of course, I've heard the famous diva perform live a number of times in the opera house and concert hall. What I mean is that I saw her once in real life as it were, off stage, a solitary figure on a London street.

One cold raw wintry day, I was taking a brisk lunch-time walk through the rose-red canyons that surround Harrods, the great emporium in Knightsbridge, where I had a temporary job over the Christmas holidays.

And there she was, emerging from a designer boutique, the great star, the voice.

One could hardly fail to spot her: Miss Norman might charitably, if not gentlemanly, be described as statuesque. A jaunty turban on her head and wrapped in a sable black (and, no doubt, in those distant days real) fur coat, she moved with stately grace towards what I imagined was her private chauffeur-driven car.

English to the depths of my vocal cords, I was too embarrassed or nervous to approach her (remember Joyce Grenfell's cruel monologue about a gushing, suffocating fan?). For what could I possibly say to the great singer? How much I had enjoyed her performances? How I admired her "art"? That hearing her sing made me rejoice to be alive?

Nothing she hadn't heard or read before, no doubt. And certainly nothing that, to my ears at least, didn't sound crass and cliched.

So I did and said nothing, watching discreetly as Miss Norman was driven off, her car melting into the traffic.

I turned back towards the rococo towers of Harrods, bristling into my overcoat, head bowed into the keening wind, the encounter or rather lack of one, leaving a faint, sour taint of disappointment.

Not for the first time did I feel cheated by the eloquence of silence.

But I wish I had said something, because of what I owe her.

As a teenager and a student I was obsessed, to the musical exclusion of almost everything else, with the musical extravaganza that is opera, and spent every spare pound on trips to the Royal Opera House and, much less frequently, to English National Opera at the London Coliseum. (Young enough to know everything, I was snobbish about opera sung in English, although I was later to discover that singing a work in its original language may sometimes lead to absurdity. I recall a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden sung in Russian, with not one native speaker of the language in the cast. The result: non-Russians singing in Russian to an audience of non-Russians.)

Feeding my operatic obsession, I queued from dawn to hear Joan Sutherland, the world's greatest vocal trapeze artist, and Carlo Bergonzi, the celebrated, if by then ageing, dramatic tenor, in Donizetti's gothic melodrama Lucia di Lammermoor.

I travelled round Europe during the long vacations, visiting opera festivals - Mozart's The Magic Flute on the floating stage at Bregenz; Verdi's Aida in the Roman amphitheatre at Verona and his Falstaff in the courtyard of the archbishop's palace in Aix en Provence; obscure Rossini dramas at Pesaro on the Adriatic coast.

I ventured across the Irish Sea for my first visit to the Wexford Opera Festival, which then as now specialises in rare and neglected works, so rare and neglected that I hadn't heard of one of the composers, let alone the operas. Umberto Giordano's La Cena delle Beffe anyone? (Wexford's craic cast its spell that first time - last year was my 25th festival.)

On a first visit to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I marvelled at the gargantuan sets, lavish costumes and cast of thousands of Franco Zeffirelli's unbelievably extravagant production of Puccini's Turandot, although I was taken aback as the audience clapped the sets on each and every curtain rise. As I said to a New Yorker friend, it was the most vulgar, ridiculous over-the-top operatic production I had ever seen; needless to say I loved every minute of it.

Sometimes, if one of my opera stars were performing in an orchestral work I would venture into the concert hall, but in the main my musical life revolved round the operatic stage.

Miss Norman's performances in London were relatively uncommon and, discovering that she would be giving the opening concert of the season at a small venue called Wigmore Hall, I judged that the only way to guarantee a ticket for a sell-out show would be to book a subscription for the whole recital season.

The strategy worked: tickets duly arrived for 10 concerts including the Norman recital.

Opening the programme booklet as I sat down, I was surprised by the repertoire. Where were the operatic arias, the bleeding chunks of excerpts from her favourite stage roles, the lollipops to end with? Instead the programme was filled with individual songs, settings of poems by unknown poets.

In a duck-egg blue and white kimono-style gown, Miss Norman opened her recital with Beethoven, moved through songs by Schumann, Brahms and Debussy, and ended with five encores, including one negro spiritual, He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.

The audience listened and reacted to the music in a way that I had not experienced before: rapt attention, no applause between songs and orphan silences at the end before any clapping started. At one point, the whole audience seemed to be breathing in sync with the singer's multicoloured phrasing, revelling in the textual energy she brought to her interpretations.

I was participating in something very special - there was a stillness and concentration about the music-making that I had not witnessed before. Later I realised that I was hearing and experiencing for the first time the truth that Claude Debussy had articulated: the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between. John Cage, of course, took this perception to its extreme in his composition 4'33", in which the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments for the duration of the piece and which therefore consists entirely of silence.

Thanks to Miss Norman, I went to nine further concerts that season. The roster that year included Victoria de Los Angeles (Spanish songs, of course), Arleen Auger (the Schumann song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben) and Elisabeth Söderstrom (music by Hugo Wolf, an unknown composer to me).

Then there were two distinctive performances of Schubert's Winterreise. The song cycle is the most heart-wrenching suicide note in music, Schubertian nihilism at its bleakest and one of the very greatest masterpieces of Western civilisation.

First off was Robert Holl, nobly sung and full of humanity. But best of all was Brigitte Fassbaender's rich, expressive mezzo-soprano tackling a song cycle that has traditionally been the preserve of the tenor or baritone voice.

Winterreise ends with the other-worldly song Der Leiermann, in which the singer asks the spectral figure of the hurdy-gurdy player to grind his ancient instrument to accompany the singer's songs. It is a song that contains almost no music, no harmonic movement, just a repetitive drone or knell.

At the end, the audience sat in numbed silence for well over a minute until someone broke the spell and started the first peals of tentative and emotionally exhausted applause. Never had clapping seemed so inappropriate a response to music.

As Glenn Gould, the quixotic Canadian pianist, wrote in his article Let's Ban Applause! (an amusing and only partly tongue-in-cheek argument that the audience should be seen and not heard): "I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, life-long construction of a state of wonder and serenity."

As Elly Ameling sang that first Wigmore Hall season: "Ich leb allein in meinem Himmel/In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied." (I live alone in my Heaven in my love and in my song.)

Those first chamber-music recitals challenged my ears and soul.

The same year, Fassbaender gave the UK premiere of Aribert Reimann's a cappella song cycle Eingedunkelt, nine lieder to poems by Paul Celan. The poems are impressions of Auschwitz and would seem to contradict George Steiner's assertion in Language and Silence that "the world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason".

Michael Hamburger, who knew Celan well, believed the poems defy translation, exploring as they do the limits of language and the limits of consciousness. The programme compiler took Hamburger at his word: only the German text was provided for the audience and, as Fassbaender records in her memoir for Wigmore Hall's centenary volume published in 2001, we listened with breathless concentration to this mesmeric artist.

And the Takács Quartet from Budapest played all of Bartók's string quartets: I found the music angular, visceral, dissonant, if boldly and aggressively rhythmic. (Hearing them all again last year performed by the same quartet, it is curious how the music to me now sounds lyrical, almost classical, in its folk-inspired language.)

Also that first season I attended a piano recital by the ancient Polish pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, born in 1892.

A short, hunched figure, arthritic-looking hands crimped like a bunch of twigs, he sat down at the piano, adjusted his waistcoat and started to play: Bach, Mozart and Chopin. As the years fell away the audience witnessed a small miracle as an old man became young again.

As a child prodigy, Horszowski had played for many famous composers and musicians including Fauré and Saint-Saëns. But in my dotage I will bore my nurses with the tale of how as a young man I heard a nonagenarian pianist who had played the piano for a pupil of one of Mozart's children.

For as a child Horszowski played a Mozart concerto in front of a certain Mme Zacharjasiewicz, who herself had studied piano with one of Mozart's children, Franz Xaver. Apparently she told Horszowski off for smudging some runs.

(At school I studied the organ with a music master who had been taught by a pupil of Josef Rheinberger's, which I suppose makes me a pupil of a pupil of a pupil of Rheinberger's. But who remembers Rheinberger today? Perhaps I'll just stick to the Mozart story.)

Why did it take me so long to discover this world of intimate, almost private, music-making? The place of chamber music, and I think specifically lieder, in the musical canon is comparable to the problem of the salon hang in art. This was the tradition that persisted until the end of the 19th century of art exhibitions displaying the pictures closely packed together on the gallery walls in order to accommodate the maximum number of works.

The early Royal Academy exhibitions used this approach, which undoubtedly created a magnificent visual impression (Zoffany's The Tribuna of the Uffizi is a wonderful 18th-century depiction of such a scene) but also produced a highly competitive ambience.

Artists used to complain that their pictures had been "skied", hung high up near the ceiling and therefore very difficult to view from the floor of the gallery. (Turner would famously retouch his paintings after installation in order to outshine the neighbouring works of art.)

Opera, orchestral works and oratorios make the most musical noise. Chamber music, lieder, quartets - these are perhaps the watercolours of music (although a late Beethoven quartet stands out magnificently, like a cathedral surrounded by booths).

That these are now an essential part of my life is due to one person.

What would I say to Jessye Norman if I saw her again in the street?

Well, I would remember my manners and thank her. Thank her for opening a door to a world of intimacy, beauty, magic and communion with what matters most. I would thank her for changing my life.

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