Kathleen Battle Edition

Kathleen Battle

Eloquence, 2024


REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski


The word “diva” gets thrown around. A lot. It means so many different things and can have negative or positive connotations, depending on the context. However, for a performer like Kathleen Battle, the sobriquet fits. She’s a diva in all of the word’s complex, flamboyant, and over-the-top meanings. A popular and revered performer since the 1970s, Battle has not only excelled in major opera roles, recitals, choral performances, and recordings, but she has also ventured into other genres. From gospel spirituals to jazz and standards, art music, and even pop music, Kathleen Battle’s career, spanning over fifty years, is a testament to her versatility and musical prowess. 

So, it’s fitting that her work for Deutsche Grammophon has been gathered for a boxed set at this point in her career (just as she’s embarking on a welcome return to the Metropolitan Opera House later this year for a recital). Kathleen Battle Edition for Eloquence is a daunting collection of 15 studio albums, but it’s a sumptuous primer to the work of this multi-faceted performer. Several of her equally prestigious colleagues appear on these records, including Itzhak Perlman, John Nelson, James Levine, Bruno Campanella, Andre Previn, Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, Christopher Parkening, Sir Georg Solti, Seiji Ozawa, among others. 

For non-opera fans, Kathleen Battle is the ideal singer. As a lyrical soprano, she possesses an agile, laser-sharp instrument. It’s light, with pretty tones, that she wields with the precision of a surgeon. She doesn’t necessarily have the depth of Jessye Norman or the warm, round sound of Renee Fleming, but that silvery, almost shard­-like voice is tonally distinct and unique and instantly recognizable. 

Opera scholars and classical music buffs could judge Battle’s suitability for specific roles or arias. Still, that voice's sheer talent and beauty means that casual fans of the genre can simply enjoy her beautiful renditions of these venerable pieces. Her work with Itzhak Perlman on the Bach arias or her stirring takes on Mozart is majestic. But the albums that resonate most on this boxed set are the records that Battle offers her listeners a sampler platter of composers. For example, her 1993 release, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Bel Canto, is magnificent. Performing works by Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti, Battle inhabits the roles of the arias she’s performing, and she receives lush support from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the great conductor Bruno Campanella. Equally stirring is her work on the 1996 release French Opera Arias. Both discs show off Battle’s interpretive skills and her extravagant, eccentric persona, which lends her work an engaging sense of drama and, at times camp. (Let’s face it, opera is pure camp.)

A highlight of this set is the 1991 live release Spirituals, which features fellow opera diva the late, great Jessye Norman. Both women celebrate their Black American roots with a repertoire of sacred hymns and gospel spirituals. The concert—recorded live at Carnegie Hall—is a lively, exciting event that feeds off the energy of the musicians, the audience, and the interaction of these two great vocalists. Norman’s darker, heavier call of a voice counterbalances Battle’s more angelic lighter tones, and the two different perspectives on the material give the record a range of emotions, colours, and sounds. 

The other Carnegie Hall performance included in this set is a 1992 live set that features a wide range of composers that works as a fitting summary of her opera, concert, and recording career. The sequencing of that tracklist is interesting because she seems to front-load the album with European masters such as Handel, Mozart, and Liszt before switching it up a bit and returning to gospel and including Gershwin's “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, which she gives a stately, regal reading. 

The most idiosyncratic part of this collection is the 1995 Honey and Rue, comprised largely of Andre Previn’s compositions set to Toni Morrison's poetry. Inspired by Morrison’s work, particularly her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, Battle suggested that the author and Previn put together a piece for her, which resulted in the song cycle Honey and Rue. The orchestrations speak to Battle’s interests in gospel, jazz, and art music and benefit from the relatively pared-down orchestration. As an added bonus, there’s a 1998 track by Herbie Hancock, “Prelude in C# Minor,” a moody, understated contemporary jazz piece featuring an angelic Battle hovering over the syncopated rhythms and pensive strings. Though out of place on Honey and Rue, it’s a great example of how Battle’s piercing tone fits outside the opera realm. 

Kathleen Battle Edition isn’t for the faint-hearted, as it’s a lot of music, and so much classical and chamber music can feel overwhelming. However, it’s an incredibly comprehensive look at the singer’s career, with the material going back as far as 1984 and covering material from masters like Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Donizetti, Verdi, Strauss, and sacred gospel and spirituals and contemporary material. It’s a dizzying testament to the talents of this singular musical personality. 

Rating: A-

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© 2024 Peter Piatkowski and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Eloquence, and is used for informational purposes only.