Janet Baker as Maria Stuarda

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Mary Stuart – Dame Janet Baker
Queen Elizabeth I – Pauline Tinsley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – Keith Erwen
George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury – Don Garrard
Sir William Cecil – Christian Du Plessis

English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus – Sir Charles Mackerras

This is not the same as the Chandos (originally EMI) recording of Maria Stuarda with Dame Janet Baker, which was recorded at performances of the revival in 1982, and was also filmed. This Ponto release was taped at a performance of the original production in 1973, and aside from Dame Janet and Sir Charles Mackerras, all the principals are different.

Pauline Tinsley, who here plays Elizabeth, was a much loved British soprano, well known for the dramatic intensity of her performances. The voice, as recorded, can tend to the wiry, and doesn’t fall so easily on the ear as Rosalind Plowright, who sings in the 1982 version, but quite a bit of that dramatic intensity comes through, and she is an excellent foil for Baker’s Maria. She doesn’t quite eclipse memories of Shirley Verrett, who sings the role on another live recording (from La Scala) with Caballé as Maria.

Dame Janet herself is in fabulous form, the voice fresher and more compact than it is in 1982. Superb though she is in 1982, she is bettered by her younger self here, and, despite the fact that the opera is sung in English translation, this has been my go to version for many years now. Easily encompassing all its vocal demands, she reveals character and emotion through the music with uncanny ability. As such, her portrayal is closer to Sills than, say, Sutherland or Caballé, but she also has the vocal grandeur that Sills’ voice lacks. The confrontation scene, with Baker and Tinsley spitting fire at each other, is possibly the most thrilling on disc. However, as you may expect, there is much more to Baker’s Maria than thrills and the final scenes are infinitely moving. Baker has an uncanny ability to hone in the emotional crux of each scene, whether it be in a line of recitative or a whole aria. In this she reminds me of Callas for all that their vocal methods are so different. So complete is her identification with Maria’s tragedy that it becomes no surprise to remember that it was one of the roles she chose to sing in her final year on the operatic stage. (If you recall, the others were Alceste at Covent Garden, and Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Glyndebourne. We don’t necessarily associate Baker with bel canto opera, but she actually made her US debut in Anna Bolena (as Smeton) and recorded a superb Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ei Montecchi on disc. Of all the roles she sang with the English National Opera, it is no surprise to find that she chose this one for her farewell to the company.

Keith Erwen is hardly in the Pavarotti class, but is a strong Leicester nonetheless, and the lower voices are in the capable hands of ENO stalwarts Don Garrard and Christian Du Plessis.

Mackerras paces the score with a sure sense of the drama, knowing exactly when to relax and when to push forward.

So pleased I bought this when it first came out. Copies are selling for around £100 on Amazon UK at the moment.

Janet Baker as Monteverdi’s Poppea

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One wouldn’t do Monteverdi like this now of course, but one has to remember that it was Raymond Leppard’s realisations of these pieces that largely put Monteverdi, and other operas of the period on the map. Leppard also changed the pitch of some of the roles, so we get a tenor Nero, a baritone Ottone, a female alto Arnalta and a tenor Page to Ottavia (the excellent John Brecknock, whose diction is so perfect you can hear every single word).

Remembering all that, this is an excellent performance and well worth investigating if you can get past the use of a modern orchestra and Leppard’s romanticised orchestrations. The opera is sung in (very clear) English. Would that more of today’s singers could sing with such natural, unforced diction. One hardly needs to follow along with the libretto, which is provided (yet another rarity these days).

It might come as a surprise to find the great Dame Janet Baker as Poppea rather than Ottavia, but she is wonderfully scheming, kittenish and manipulative, the voice character she creates a million miles away from the suffering Ottavia she sings in recorded extracts.

Unsurprisingly none of the other singers is quite on her level of inspiration, but all are expressive and more than adequate. Would that the ENO could provide such a cast nowadays.

My favourite recording of the opera is the quite recent la Venexiana recording of the Naples version under Claudio Cavina, but this Live ENO performances is worth listening to, both as a reminiscence of a bygone age and for the inestimable singing of Dame Janet Baker.

Janet Baker – Chausson, Berlioz and Schoenberg

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These are all live performances of material Baker recorded in the studio (twice in the case of Les Nuits d’Eté, so one might wonder if they are really essential listening.

Well, though Baker was a superb recording artist, who never really made a bad record, she was also a great communicator and collaborator and these performances, all with different conductors from the studio ones, bring with them the added frisson that comes with a live event, and the sound, though not as clear as in her studio performances, is more than acceptable.

It starts with a 1975 performance of Chausson’s almost Wagnerian Poème del’amour et de la mer, which she recorded two years later under André Previn. This one has, somehwat suprisingly you might think, Evgeni Svetlanov at the helm, who takes great care over dynamics and shapes the work beautifully. Baker’s range of expression, her concenration, her breath control and command of the long line are exemplary, filling its pages with rapt expression. A marvelous performance.

Baker’s recording of Les Nuits d’Eté with Barbirolli, recorded in 1967 is justly famous and has hardly been out of the catalogue. She recorded it again under Richard Hickox in 1990, but by this time her voice was beginning to show signs of wear (more noticeable in a recording than when I heard them perform the work together in concert at around the same time) and the second recording has never enjoyed the acclaim of the first. This performance under Giulini was taped at the Royal Festival Hall a month after the Chausson and it is good to hear how Baker’s interpretation changed depending on whom she was singing with. Giulini’s speeds are expansive (Le spectre de la rose at 8’29” must be one of the slowest on disc) and would tax most singers beyond their limits, but here they never flag and Baker luxuriates in the extra room she is given to make her interpretive points. As in the Chausson, her breath control is astonishing and the range of expression wide. My notes are peppered with words like searing, delicate, passionate abandon, yearning. Though it doesn’t entirely supplant the Barbirolli in my affections, it is nonetheless a performance I would never want to be without.

The earliest performance here is a 1963 recording of the Song of the Wood Dove from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a work she recorded five years later under Janos Ferencsik. Baker was not yet 30 when she gave this performance and, superbly supported by Norman Del Mar, her singing is urgently free and impassioned, even better than that on the Ferencsik.

Essential listening then? Absolutely and unequivocally, yes.

Dame Janet Baker sings Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

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Essential listening, I’d venture to suggest, even for those who already have the Philips Originals box set I reviewed here. Here we have the whole of Baker’s 1977 Beethoven and Schubert recital, of which three items appear on the Philips box, coupled to the Mozart items from her 1974 Mozart and Haydn recital, none of which do.

The prize of this CD is Dame Janet’s superb rendering of Sesto’s arias from La Clemenza di Tito. Not only is it a technical tour de force, the rapid triplet figures at the end of Parto, parto tossed off with breathtaking ease, but the range of expression is extraordinary and personal. I have never heard another singer differentiate so much between the repeated cries of Guardami!; in the first she pleads almost angrily, but in the second her tone changes completely, becoming meltingly beseeching, as if Sesto realises he has gone too far. Furthermore she has the ability to get to the emotional core of the music without ever disrupting its Classical style. Pure genius.

Elsewhere she is in enviable form in a programme that ranges wide, including rarities like Beethoven’s No, non turbati and arias from Schubert’s Lazarus and Alfonso und Estrella. Leppard’s accompaniments, whether conducting the English Chamber Orchestra or on the piano or harpsichord are discreet rather than revelatory, perhaps happy, with such a patrician artist, to let his soloist take the lead.

The recordings, originally made for Philips in quadrophonic sound, are here issued in SACD, though I was listening in simple stereo. They are wonderfully clear and lucid.

Highly recommended.