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Music review: Kathleen Battle is back

February 17, 2010 |  1:30 pm

Kathleen Battle has the right to sing the blues. But she didn’t Tuesday night at her rare and peculiar -- but remarkable -- Orange County Philharmonic Society recital at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Joined by Russian pianist Olga Kern, Battle stuck to Schubert, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and spirituals. What she did reveal was her long and hard road to soul.

Battle, who is 61, is often thought a singer in the past tense. An opera star who had it all – a beautiful woman with a lyric voice of pure silver and a lively stage presence – she acted, instead, as if she never had enough. She became notorious for her reputedly unreasonable demands and self-destructed. In her prime, and at the height of her fame, she was fired from a Metropolitan Opera production for her “unprofessional actions,” and she has never appeared in opera since.

Although Battle’s high profile turned low, she didn’t go away after this public humiliation. She has appeared over the years here and there in recitals. She has collaborated often unexpectedly. A highly polished singer never known for her spontaneity, she began working seriously with top jazz musicians. The last time she came through Orange County, it was in 2001 with maverick harpsichordist Anthony Newman for a program of Baroque music. The last time I heard her was in the sonically overbearing updated “Fantasia 2000” (which has now reappeared at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood) where I first mistook her for a theremin.

Battle is clearly still touchy. She would not allow photography Tuesday. She first agreed to be interviewed by The Times and then pulled out. There was also an inordinate amount of fussing Tuesday by stage hands and dramatic long waits for Battle and Kern to emerge after the house lights went down.

Battle and Kern are another odd couple. The glamorous Russian pianist, a tall and stunning blond, is a rising star and a power player who has little trouble hogging the limelight. Battle, though, is the limelight. They inhabit separate worlds, but the stage was large enough for both and they seemed to enjoy their encounter.

The program told Battle’s story. An opening set of Schubert songs represented the bright, callow, coy soprano who was. That Battle is obviously no more. The distinctive loveliness of her tone was easily discernible but also veiled by vibrato and insecure intonation. Kern, in Schubert, was, I thought, an unpleasant taskmaster creating hoops through which Battle jumped with just enough agility to avoid harm.

In the Liszt group, we had the mannered (if no longer ill-mannered) Battle. Liszt’s songs, underrated and too seldom heard, call for operatic temperament and benefit from a flashy pianist. Battle’s voice has naturally filled out with age and she has cared for it properly. Here she was magnificent. One thing that Battle will always be remembered for is a wonderful song cycle, “Honey and Rue,” that André Previn once wrote for her.  And in the final Liszt number, “O! Quand Je Dors,” (“Oh, While I Sleep”), she was once more all vocal honey, rue, as well as sweet cream and majestic calm.

But it wasn’t until after intermission that Battle came into her own as a formidable singer true to her own experience. Rachmaninoff’s songs tend toward predictable melancholy and Battle sang them with impressive intensity. She has never quite known what to do with her arms in recitals and will probably go on waving them abstractly as long as she continues singing (which could be quite a while, given her thrilling command of punishing high tessitura).

Nor does she sing to the audience. The title of one Russian song is translated “In the Mysterious Silence of the Night,” and Battle sang as if in her own sleepless world, maturely struggling with her own emotions.

Yes, maturely. Battle connected with Rachmaninoff in a deep and important way. An opera singer doesn’t throw away a great career cavalierly. Clearly Battle’s demons are uncommonly demanding. But maybe her plight and her pluck have caused her to grow in ways she might not have otherwise if she kept singing silly roles on the lyric stage.

The standard line about Battle was to say she lacked soul, especially when it came to the fine shine she gave to spirituals. That line can be put to bed. The four she sang (three on the program and an encore) in arrangements by Hall Johnson and Hale Smith were ravishing, as her spirituals always were, but they also sounded acutely felt.

Kern was most in her element in Rachmaninoff, but she is an enthusiastic pounder, and that counts for something. On her own she played a Schubert/Liszt transcription and Rachmaninoff's Moment Musicaux Opus 16, No. 4, flamboyantly. But Battle at her best can now transcendent flamboyance, and that's something.

-- Mark Swed