Emma Kirkby & Jakob Lindberg
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Emma Kirkby & Jakob Lindberg

Weill Recital Hall

BEFORE SHE BECAME A PROFESSIONAL SINGER, soprano Emma Kirkby read classics at Oxford, a passion that informed her intelligently programmed, winningly performed concert at Weill Recital Hall on October 14. Joined by the elegant lutenist Jakob Lindberg, Kirkby grouped songs by different Renaissance and early Baroque composers around classical heroines and themes. Whether singing in Latin, Greek, Italian or English, Kirkby’s refreshingly direct, unfussy delivery was captivating, every word landing on the ear with crystal clarity. Her energy is that of a faerie or sprite, with gestures as delicate as her gossamer soprano. Kirkby’s pure, clean tone releases naturally into a gentle vibrato at the finish. This allows her to caress and cavort over the melismas in John Blow’s “Oh Venus, daughter of the mighty Jove,” in which practically every word is ornamented. Her intelligence shines through both musically and textually, and she displays a unique ability to sing the punctuation, which takes her already conversational, troubadour-style delivery to another level of clarity. In Dowland’s “When Phoebus first did Daphne love,” when Kirkby sang the line “Then in a rage he sware, and said, / Past fifteen none (none but one) should live a maid” the drama of the moment came through in those infinitesimal pauses as she parsed the sentences.

Kirkby subtly altered her persona as she lived these characters’ stories, so that the heroine of Byrd’s “Constant Penelope” was mellow and mature compared to the unforced girlishness of her Hero in Nicholas Lanier’s dramatic recitative “Nor com’st thou yet (Hero and Leander).” Two songs by Henry Lawes based on Anacreon’s ode to his lyre offered contrasting moods as well as language. In Lawes’s setting of the original Greek, Kirkby was more authoritative, while she explored an earthier, more knowing attitude for Lawes’s musicalization of the same text in English translation. That wryness continued in John Blow’s “If mighty wealth,” during which Kirkby slyly raised the water glass she kept onstage as she sang about wine drowning cares. In fact, she only left the stage at intermission, choosing to listen to Lindberg strum his lute in several sublime solos. Kirkby eschewed the obvious choice of Dido’s Lament in favor of Alonso Mudarra’s setting of the actual passage from Virgil, which includes not only Dido’s voice, but the narration of the discovery of her body. Mudarra’s Dido is more plaintive and less self-pitying than Purcell’s, and Kirkby’s delivery was mesmerizing. She was also charming giving Venus’s motherly advice to Cupid in contrasting settings by Pelham Humfrey and Purcell. For an encore, she offered Purcell’s “Music for a While,” which has introduced many a concert. Kirkby reminded the audience that the text is a respite from the mounting horrors in Oedipus Rex, thus justifying its addition to the program. Of course, this made us listen to the song differently, but that was in keeping with the rest of the evening. Everything about Kirkby’s presentation was so well-informed, deftly communicated, and suffused with unusually detailed dramatic content that one left feeling both edified and ennobled. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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