Battle sings supremely, but her voice has limits

January 20, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Listening to song recitals by operatic stars can be a little like watching a tiger catch a mouse. Tigers are cats, and they can pull off the trick, but the mouse often gets obliterated.

Kathleen Battle's appearance last night at Meyerhoff Hall recital (in a benefit for Morgan State University) was not an example of a diva slumming in the art song repertory. Battle, the reigning light soprano at the Metropolitan Opera and perhaps the world, has always used her refined phrasing, carefully controlled singing and smooth delivery effectively in recitals. Whether last night's program -- or at least the limited amount of it that inclement weather and early deadline permitted me to hear -- was particularly well-suited to her is another question.

The purity and arch inflections of Battle's soprano were beautifully apt for two songs by Purcell (in realizations by Benjamin Britten): "Music for a while" and "The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation." Here no listener could have felt a need for a bigger, warmer voice. These were noble readings, with beautiful shading and masterly control of breath and tone. Each phrase was yet another revelation of how beautifully she sings.

But a group of eight Schubert songs that concluded the first half of the program was another matter. Battle is in her 46th year, but her coy manner (and her musicianship) are often those of a young woman. This was fine in such a relatively playful song as "Liebhaber in allen Gestalter" or an innocently bawdy one such as "Die Maenner sind mechant." But though Battle's singing was never less than consistently sweet and pure, she seemed out of her weight in "Lied der Mignon" and "Lied der Delphine," which deal with the coming of death and aging.

She seemed particularly overmatched by "Gretchen am Spinnrade." Battle simply did not marshal her vocal forces carefully enough to build the song to its shattering climax.

Just before departing, this listener heard Battle perform the first of Strauss' "Ophelia Lieder" with a silvery tone. One also regretted having to miss songs by Villa-Lobos -- music to which Battle's purity of sound and temperament are well-matched.

Battle's splendid accompanist was pianist Margo Garrett, whose playing showed imagination, delicate touches of color and had an endearing quality.

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