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MUSIC REVIEW : Kathleen Battle Sings a Precious Recital

February 06, 1989|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Kathleen Battle, who cheered her vociferous fans with a delicately sophisticated song recital at Royce Hall on Friday, is prodigiously gifted.

She commands a silver-bell soprano of uncommon sweetness and purity. She sings with rare concentration, sensitivity and intelligence. She also happens to look like a fragile fashion model, and, even on the concert platform, conveys apt dramatic involvement in every challenge.

On this occasion, she floated moonbeam pianissimo tones at every opportunity. She demonstrated a model grasp of the artful legato phrase. She made any filigree flight seem organic and inevitable, never just pretty.

She sang Handel arias with agility and arching lyricism. She sang Schubert Lieder with introspective languor. She sang Richard Strauss with charming sentiment, Faure with sensuous elegance, Obradors with muted, insinuating temperament. Even though coloratura glitter is not her strongest forte, she deftly approximated the extroversion of the "Mignon" polonaise.

At encore time, she explored the sexy shimmer of Lehar's "Vilja." Then she defined the ethereal poignancy of three spirituals.

She did just about everything right. And yet. . . .

At 39 and at the peak of her estimable career, Battle seems to be flirting with the dangers of over-refinement. In her quest for expressive intimacy, she seems to be vying for honors in the late-Schwarzkopf sigh-whisper-and-whimper school of singing.

Her erstwhile spontaneity of communication is being supplanted, it seems, by certain self-conscious attitudes. Vocal shimmer is being compromised by intellectual exaggeration. Simplicity of communication is giving way to simple preciousness.

One need not worry much about some passing technical blemishes: top notes attacked slightly from below, or low notes that tend to evaporate in breath. One might worry, however, about pervasive interpretive excess.

Unlike 99% of her colleagues and rivals, Battle strikes the observer as a stubborn perfectionist. That may be the problem.

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