At 60, soprano Kirkby’s expressive voice is still on the mark

By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / October 26, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - There are singers who do little with a lot. Joan Sutherland comes to mind. There are those who do a great deal with less. The queen of these is surely Dame Emma Kirkby, the English early-music specialist who made a rare appearance Friday night to an overflow crowd at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival.

Gifted with an ideal choir-girl soprano - bright, flexible, and vibrato-less - she has used those vocal qualities over a long career along with scrupulous musicianship and fine diction to revive solo music of the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, it might be said she has done for that period what Maria Callas did for 19th-century bel canto singing.

In the early 1970s, when she began, her sound was startling; now many sopranos sound like Kirkby, though few sing with her attention to detail.

She always puts the text first, and, listening to her, one rarely misses a word. Her emotions are contained, and she makes expressive effects by changing vocal color (generally whitening the sound), or adding an ornament to a strict musical line. She is not much of a stage actress. (Her poses in the several songs that she delivered standing were a bit nervous and overdone.) She thinks of herself as an ensemble singer, above all, and for much of the concert sang from a chair beside her musical partner, the superb Swedish lutenist Jakob Lind-berg, threading her vocal silver into his cloth-of-gold. At the end of Dowland’s “In darkness let me dwell,’’ she bent the pitch a bit flat, making it, in the context, a shattering cry of pain.

This was an all-English program of songs and instrumental pieces by John Dowland and Henry Purcell. An alternative, more varied program of European composers in New York had been given earlier in the week, and one heard about that with a certain envy. What we heard were mostly familiar masterpieces, and the Dowland selections (including “Come, heavy sleep,’’ “Come ye heavy states of night,’’ and “In darkness let me dwell’’) were generally in the same droopy mood. It was relief, amid these, to hear Lindberg’s virtuoso solo version of the “Earl of Essex’s Galliard.’’ (The vocal setting of that piece, “Can she excuse my wrongs,’’ would have provided a welcome “up’’ note. There is a lilting Dowland, too.)

The Purcell selections were more gratifying, in part, because Kirkby stood and projected more fully into the cavernous First Church space, which had swallowed some of the detail of the Dowland. These are charming, stage-worthy songs, and drew on her skills at runs and ornamentation, her mellow middle register, and easy top. “Bess of Bedlam’’ had an almost operatic intensity and ended with a delightful antic dance and spin. At 60, Kirkby has lost little, and gained overtones and experience. Lindberg added a fine set of his own lute arrangements of some of Purcell’s ensemble music.

BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL Dame Emma Kirkby, soprano;

Jakob Lindberg, lute

At: First Church in Cambridge,

Congregational, Friday

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