Dame Janet Baker is without doubt one of the greatest singers of the latter part of the twentieth century, known throughout the world from her recordings and international recitals. Though her range was quite wide, taking in operatic roles from Monteverdi to Richard Strauss, and even embracing the Verdi Requiem and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, she was never tempted to sing outside her fach and retired, first from the operatic stage and then from recital work, whilst still at her peak, so that we never saw the slow vocal decline we often hear from great singers. Her Yorkshire firmness of mind and pragmatism also meant that she refused to join the international operatic circus, and in fact only once sang in opera outside the UK (when the Royal Opera took their hugely successful production of La Clemenza di Tito to La Scala, Milan).
This 5 disc set brings together some of the recordings Dame Janet Baker made for Decca, Argo and Philips during the 1960s and 1970s. Though contracted to EMI (and Warner have a pretty exhaustive twenty disc box set of her work for that label, called The Great Recordings), she made a few recordings for Decca/Argo (including her famous recording of Dido and Aeneas) in the early 60s, and then a tranche of recitals for Philips in the 1970s. The range of material here is not quite as wide as that on the aforementioned Warner set, but takes us from 17th century arie through to Britten.
Disc 1 is a selection of what most vocal students would know as Arie Antiche (called here Arie Amorose), accompanied by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. Whilst the somewhat souped-up arrangements can sound somewhat anachronistic today, Baker’s wonderfully varied singing brings each song winningly to life. The disc is rounded off with a couple of arias from Cavalli’s La Calisto recorded shortly after her great success in the role of Diana/Jove at Glyndebourne.
Some of Baker’s greatest early successes were in Handel and Disc 2 is mostly taken up by a superb 1972 Handel recital she made with the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard. How brilliantly she charts the changing emotions in the cantata Lucrezia and also in the arioso-like Where shall I fly from Hercules,but each track displays the specificity of her art, the way she can express, on the one hand, the despair in an aria like Scherza infida and, on the other, the joy in Dopo notte, both from Ariodante. The disc is rounded off by a superb 1966 recording of Bach’s Vergnügte Ruh and her incomparable When I am laid in earth from her 1961 recording of Dido and Aeneas.
Disc 3 has excerpts from a 1973 Mozart/Haydn recital and a 1976 Beethoven/Schubert disc, both made with Raymond Leppard, with the addition of arias from her complete recordings of La Clemenza di Tito and Cosí fan tutte under Sir Colin Davis. The two Haydn cantatas (one with piano and one with orchestra) are very welcome, but we do miss her stunning performance of Sesto’s two big arias from La Clemenza di Tito, and her gently intimate performance of Mozart’s Abendempfindung. Fortunately these have been included in a superb selection taken from the same two recitals on the Pentatone label, which includes all the missing Mozart and Schubert items. This disc also includes her recording of Beethoven’s Ah perfido!, a little smaller in scale than some, but beautifully judged none the less. It doesn’t have Callas’s ferocity, it is true, but it is much more comfortably vocalised.
Disc 4 is of music by Rameau (excerpts from her 1965 recording of Hippolyte et Aricie, which well display her impassioned Phèdre), Gluck (arias for Orfeo and Alceste taken from her 1975 Gluck recital) and Berlioz (1979 performances of Cléopâtre and Herminie and Béatrice’s big scene from Davis’s complete 1977 recording of Béatrice et Bénédict). The biggest loss here is of the majority of the Gluck recital, which included many rare items, though the complete reictal was at one time available on one of Philips’s budget labels. Baker is without doubt one of the greatest Berlioz exponents of all time, and the two scènes lyriques are especially welcome. These are fine examples of her dramatic intensity and the range of expression in both is fully exploited.
Disc 5 is of late nineteenth and twentieth century French song and Benjamin Britten; the whole of a disc of French song made with the Melos Ensmble in 1966, excerpts from the composers own recordings of The Rape of Lucretia and Owen Wingrave and the cantata, Phaedra, which was composed specifically for her. The Melos disc includes Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses and Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle and Delage’s Quatre poèmes hindous and is a fine example of Baker’s felicity in French chanson, particularly ravishing in the wordless melismas of Lahore from Quatre poèmes Hindous. The Britten excerpts remind us of her sympathetic portrayal of Lucretia and her unpleasant Kate in Owen Wingrave. The Britten cantata is a great example of her controlled intensity.
Remarkable throughout is the care and concentration of her interpretations. Nothing is glossed over, nothing taken for granted, and she was one of those artists who could bring the frisson of live performance into the studio. Nor do I think she ever made a bad record. I heard her live on many occasions. Hers was not a big voice, but it was one that coud carry to the furthest recesses of a large hall, even when singing pianissimo. Furthermore there was a concentration, and intensity and a gift of communication, vouchsafed to just a few. One of my all time favourite singers.