In a lesson to those purists who deplore the application of operatic technique to popular music, the splendid Jessye Norman steps away from the operatic stage to sing the music that reflects her African-American heritage and that has influenced her from childhood. Recorded live at a concert at the Berlin Philharmonie, this flawless album is her first recording in 10 years, and is a fantastic showcase for the versatility of this consummate musician. She begins with a simmering African Drum Invocation and a series of Spirituals (part of the oral tradition of American slaves up to the mid-19th century), a hypnotic sequence that could have turned mawkish in lesser hands. Her controlled rubato and liquid tone, though, turn these beautiful, simple melodies into almost avant-garde works that are overwhelmingly moving. Hers is a voice to sink into, to wallow in and to marvel at. Leonard Bernstein's powerful Somewhere leads the way to more famous jazz numbers that pay tribute to Norman's musical idols, such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Lena Horne and Odetta. The classical canon is covered by Poulenc, Bizet and Kurt Weill, her voice spanning the genres from a hard blues scat, through a husky swing to a pure operatic tone. The small but eminent ensemble of musicians accompanying her is quietly brilliant, too. Those lucky enough to be in Europe this summer can catch her performing this repertoire live. Based on this album, it will be worth the trip.
The Original Three Tenors 20th Anniversary Edition (CD/DVD) Decca This groundbreaking concert, conducted by Zubin Mehta in Rome in 1990, is a glorious reminder of why Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras, the three operatic geniuses, were so special when performing together. Siphiwo Nsthebe Hope Epic This hugely talented South African tenor was on the verge of international stardom, and set to open the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, when he died suddenly last month of meningitis at the age of just 34. This might not be your favoured choice of tracks, but it's a sad hint of what could have been.