Writing about the renowned contralto Marian Anderson in last month’s issue of The New Criterion, I described how musical beauty can be communicated through the art of a single great singer, one who combined an extraordinarily beautiful voice and a touchingly restrained musical personality. It is my intention here to shift the focus from the singer to the music sung, and to discuss some examples of the fate of the greatest masterworks at the hands—or more precisely at the vocal cords—of artists in the present and the past.

As an example of the present, my text will be Jessye Norman’s recent “Live From Lincoln Center” telecast on PBS, with Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic, of the concluding “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Miss Norman, born in Georgia in 1945, is perhaps the reigning diva of the day. Now (one must assume) in...


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