Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Eté – a comparative review of ten recordings

Les Nuits d’Eté is one of my favuorite orchestral song cycles and, along with Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, must be one of the most recorded works for voice and orchestra. The songs were originally written to a piano accompaniment and we don’t know why Berlioz chose these six particular texts by his contemporary, Théophile Gautier. Though not really conceived as a cycle, they do make a satsifying programme with two lighter songs framing three deeply emotional outpourings. Berlioz orchestrated Absence in 1846 then orchestrated the remaining songs in 1853, suggesting a mezzo-soprano or tenor for Villanelle, contralto for Le spectre de la rose, baritone (or optionally mezzo or contralto) for Sur les lagunes, mezzo or tenor for Absence, tenor for Au cimetière and mezzo or tenor for L’île inconnue, though nowadays it is more regularly sung by one singer, usually a mezzo or a soprano. It has been recorded by tenors, baritones and bass-baritones and even countertenors.

They have been recorded umpteen times and Ralph Moore has done an exhaustive comparison of most of these recordings, which I recommend to anyone who loves the songs. You can view it at http://musicweb-international.com/classrev/2019/Aug/Berlioz_nuits_survey.pdf.

I have ten recordings in my collection and these are the ten I listened to over a period of two days. The songs respond to a variety of different approaches and I enjoyed my task immensely.

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Vctoria De Los Angeles recorded the cycle in 1955 with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, when she was in superb voice. As always there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from her singing, her tone suitably plaintive in the middle songs and smilingly bright and playful in the outer songs, which, predictably, is where she is most successful. What I miss is a deeper vein of tragedy, something more grandiloquent in the middle songs, where what we need is a touch of Cassandre and Didon. De Los Angeles reminds me more of a Marguerite. She is in warm, velvety voice, and this is nonetheless one of the most satisfying accounts around. Sonically it can’t measure up to any of the later stereo recordings.

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Nor, unfortunately can the Steber version with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Columbia Symphomy Orchestra. The first impression when listening to this version is of the sheer security and perfect focus of Steber’s beautiful voice. The cycle doesn’t get off to a very impressive start, with Mitropoulos’s too deliberate tempo for Villanelle. It is actually close to the metronome mark of crotchet = 96, but it seems plodding and Mitropoulos fails to make the woodwind light enough. But Steber is gorgeous. She can expand the tone gloriously at a phrase like et parmi la fête étoilée in Le spectre de la rose and the quality remains wonderfully rich down below. Throughout Steber is keenly responisve to the poetry. Au cimetière, for instance, has a real sense of tragic foreboding. What a superb Cassandre she might have been. Definitely a prime contender. If only it had been in better sound.

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Now here is something rather different. The countertenor voice is not one you would expect to hear in this music, but David Daniels has always had a velvety, rich sound and his version comes as something of a pleasant surprise, though, more used to hearing him in the music of the Baroque, I did wonder if this version might be a product of the gramophone. He did however sing it in the concert hall and his is a voice I’ve never had trouble hearing in the hall or theatre, so maybe I’m wrong. Daniels has excellent French, a perfect legato and is ideally steady throughout, with a much greater range of tone colour than you would expect from a countertenor. As always, his phrasing is wonderfully musical and John Nelson provides excellent support with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. Ultimately, for all his musicality and way of commuicating the text, I’m not sure the countertenor voice is what the songs require, but it is a very interesting experiment which Daniels almost pulls off.

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It was quite a shock to plunge from Daniels to the darkly pungent tones of Agnes Baltsa. Her French is often questionable and the voice and manner are arrestingly individual, with her varying her tone from song to song. I suppose you’d call her approach quite operatic. She adopts an almost coy sexuality for Villanelle, choosing a more Dalila-like sensuality for Le spectre de la rose, languidly eliding some of the phrases. Some might find her plunges into chest voice jarring, but I rather like it. The singing can be a bit rough round the edges but you could never call her dull. Ralph Moore suggests that she brings more than a touch of her Carmen to the songs, and I’d agree. It’s not how I’d always like to hear them, but it’s certainly a very individual and occasionally thrilling take on them. Jeffrey Tate and the London Symphony Orchestra provide excellent support.

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Régine Crespin is the only version included here by a French singer and it is really good to hear the language enunciated so clearly, especially after the idiosyncratic French of someone like Baltsa.

Now Crespin’s version is so famous that it has been a prime recommendation for the work ever since it was first issued in 1963 and dissenting opinions are likley to be viewed with incredulity, but, unlike its coupling of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, I’m not sure the Berlioz holds up that well. For a start, there is a deal of sloppy orchestral playing from L’Orchestre de la Suisse-Romande under Ernest Ansermet, and, for another, Crespin’s singing often tends to the lugubrious. There is no sense of mounting rapture at the arrival of the rose, no sense of despair in Sur les lagunes, no plaintive yearning in Absence. The singing is altogether too civilised, and, however musical and tasteful her singing , however elegant her phrasing, Crespin remains aloof and uninvolved. She is at the oppoiste pole from Baltsa’s often wild and wayward version, but I miss Baltsa’s dramatic involvement, which I ultmately prefer. I see that I’m not alone in my opinion, which is supported by both Ralph Moore and David Cairns (in Song on Record, Volume II). A controversial opinion, no doubt, but I’m sticking to it. Crespin is most successful in the final song, which responds to her vocal equivalent of the ironically arched eyebrow. Another mark against her is that she unaccountably alters the order of the songs, placing Absence before Sur les lagunes, which destroys the balance of the cycle. Intonation is occasionally suspect too, especially in Au cometière.

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Colin Davis’s multi-singer version is something of an inconclusive experiment. However ineresting it is to hear the songs sung more or less by the voices Berlioz suggested, I think the cycle hangs together better when captured by a single voice. Nor do any of the singers challenge the best of other versions by single singers. Frank Patterson, who has a rather whiny, nasal timbre is granted two songs, Villanelle and Au cimetiére, neither of which he does justice to. Josephine Veasey, an appreciable Berlioz singer, sings a plausible Le spectre de la rose without really illuminating it, and John Shirley-Quirk tends to growl in the lower regions of Sur les lagunes. The most successful of the singers is soprano Sheila Armstrong, who sings in excellent French and turns in a nicely plaintive Absence as well as a charmingly flirtatious L’île inconnue. One would expect Sir Colin and the London Symphony Orchestra to give a brilliant version of the score, but the effect is somewhat somnolent and low key. Interesting but inconclusive.

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Next we come to the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, recorded live at a concert in 1991 or 1995 (the booklet isn’t entirely clear on this point). It has to be said that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan are not quite up to the standard of the ensembles in some of these performances, but they nonetheless provide sensitive accompaniment to Hunt Lieberson’s superbly detailed and deeply heartfelt performances. Throughout she is totally inside the music, her response to the poetry seeming totally spontaneous and natural. Unerringly she captures the mood of each song, certain phrases remaining etched on the memory, for instance the blank, desparing tone at the end of Au cimetière, which, though  she switches to smilingly insouciant joy for L’île inconnue, creeps back into her tone for the closing measures when she reminds us that not all is happy au pays d’amour. The voice is surpassingly beautiful, the singing intensely concentrated and she communicates so much. What a great loss she was to the musical world.

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Finally, I come to three versions by the great Dame Janet Baker. The most recent ( recorded in 1990) and the one I will discuss first, was one of her last (maybe her last ever) recording. made shorly after she had retired from the concert platform. By this time her great artistry cannot quite hide the hint of strain in the upper reaches, the discoloration on certain vowels and the loosening of vibrations on sustained high notes. In no way is this competitive with her two other vesions (one live under Giulini and the famous studio one under Barbirolli), so I will only comment by saying I heard Baker and Hickox perform the cycle not long before this recording was made and, live and in the concert hall, it was still an amazing experience.

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The live Giulini account, taken from a concert at the Royal Festiva Hall in 1975, must be amongst the slowest on disc and it is remarkable that Baker can sustain these speeds; but sustain them she does, luxuriating in the added breadth that Giulini gives her, her breath control quite astonishing. The recorded sound is a trifle muddy and we hear the occasional coughs that go along with live music making, but the specificity of her response to the text is quite extraordinary and there is a concentrated intensity about this performance, which is no doubt enhanced by the presence of a live audience. If I continue to prefer the studio performance, that could be because it is the one by which I got to know the songs and it is no doubt imprinted on my brain. It also, of course enjoys better sound. Both interpretations are absolutely and unequivocally superb. Baker’s stage roles included both Cassandre and Didon and she brings something of the character of their music to these songs too.

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Baker enjoyed a very special relationship with Sir John Barbirolli and of course made a few important recordings with him before he died in 1970.  Apart from the above recording of Ravel and Berlioz they can be heard in famous recordings of Elgar’s Sea Pictures,  Mahler’s three orchestral song cycles and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, all very special and irreplaceable.

The New Philharmonia are in fine form and provide some of the best orchestral playing on any of these performances. Villanelle is perhaps a little too determinedly jolly, but after that the performance just gets better and better. Baker starts Le spectre de la rose almost confidingly, as if whispering into the ear of the sleeping girl, swelling into the glorious mini climax at Et parmi le fête étoilée, Tu me promenas tout le soir. Her tone turns both sensual and erotic when the rose arrives from paradise, and then she sings the phrase Mon destin fut digne d’envie in one glorious, long breath. This might just be the most wonderful performance of the song ever put down on record.

From there we are plunged into the blank, desparing tone of Ma belle amie est morte. If she were the Act IV Didon in the previous song here she is Cassandre, singing in stark absolutes. Having reached a desolate climax the song fades away in a whispered close of utter dejection. She yearns sweetly in Absence, the voice taking on a soprano-ish lightness in the upper register, but maintaining its tragic depth for the line Ah, grands désirs inappaisées. Au cimetière is mesmerisingly hypnotic, conjuring up ghostly visions of graveyards at night, until finally gloom is dispelled and a smile enters her voice for L’île inconnue, with a coquettish twinkle on Est-ce dans la Baltique?

After listening to ten different recordings in two days, I find I love the cycle more than ever and all these recordings have something to offer.  I actually enjoyed them all. However if I had to choose but one  on that proverbial desert island, then it would have to be Baker with Barbirolli, though I’d probably find a way to smuggle the Hunt Lieberson with me as well somehow.

Dame Janet Baker – The Great Recordings

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This exhaustive twenty disc box was, when it was first released on EMI, more properly called The Great EMI Recordings. The deletion of the word EMI from the titele has something to do with the conditions of the sale, of EMI to Warner but the original title is more representative of the contents, as Dame Janet also made “great” recordings  for Decca, Philips and Hyperion. Aside from Ottavia’s Lament and Farewell from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and the final scenes from Berlioz’s Les Troyens, this set includes no opera. Still, the range is wide, covering music from Monteverdi to Schoenberg and, as it also includes excerpts from various complete recordings of orotorios, covers just about everything she ever recorded for EMI and later Virgin Classics. The quality is extrordinarily high and it is safe to say that she never made a bad record and many of them are out and out classics.

The lay out is mostly logical, starting with early music and moving forward in time, but cramming shorter LP recordings onto twenty well-filled CDs has inevetably led to the occasional odd juxtaposition. Most of the recordings cover her vocal prime, from 1966 through the 1970s. Shortly after she retired she made a few recordings with Richard Hickox in 1989 and 1990 and only these show a slight decline in her vocal resources, though the artistry remains undimmed.

Disc one starts with a 1969 recording of music by Monteverdi, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti with the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard rounded off by excerpts from a duet recital with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1970. Leppard’s souped up arrangements of the Monteverdi might seem anachronistic now, but Baker’s impassioned singing of Arianna’s Lament and Ottavia’s Lament and Farewell from L’Incoronazione di Poppea transcends any matters of style. The duet items (music by Schütz, Schein and Lilius) have continuo realisations by George Malcolm, who plays the organ with Kenneth Heath on the cello and are delightful in every way.

Disc two gives us the first side of an LP called A Pageant of English Song, which had songs by Dowland and Campion accompanied on the lute, and by Purcell, Monro (I can’t think of his My lovely Cecilia without having Baker’s smiling tone in my head) Boyce and Arne, with accompaniments by Martin Isepp on harpsichord. More duets with Fischer-Dieskau round off the disc, some of these taken from a 1969 Queen Elizabeth Hall recital with Barenboim on the piano.

From here we move to Bach for the next two discs, the wonderful performance of Ich habe genug under Menuhin being particularly noteworthy. A Bach recital, which she recorded wit Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner is spread over the two discs, which finished with the alto arias from Klemperer’s 1967 recording of the Mass in B minor. What a superb Bach singer she was.

We move onto Handel, a composer with whom Baker was particularly associated. Mackerras’s recording of Messiah was one of the first to make a stab in the direction of HIP. It was also the first one I ever owned, Baker’s contribution being particularly memorable. Her version of He was despised is incredibly moving. The two Handel cantatas are listed as arr. Leppard, but I’m not sure what those ‘arrangements’ involve. Baker is, as always, a superb Handelian.

The Haydn and Beethoven Folk Song Arrangements, which follow on the next disc, rather outstay their welcome, for me anyway, even in performances as special and imaginative as these, which means that the ensuing Schumann and Brahms duets from the QEH concert come as something of a relief.

Discs seven and eight are all Schubert, taken, for the most part, from a two disc set she recorded with Gerald Moore in 1971, which included quite a few rarities and a 1980 recital with Geofrrey Parsons of more popular fare. Amongst so many great performances, it’s hard to name favourites, but I doubt I’ve ever heard a better performance of Du bist die Ruh, which is not only deeply felt but also displays the perfection of her tehcnique and her superb breath control.

A few more Schubert songs start the ninth disc, which then continues with a Mendelssohn recital with Geofrrey Parsons and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben with Daniel Barenboim. One of the first records Janet Baker ever made was of the Schumann cycle, for the Saga label before she was contracted to EMI. It was released to much acclaim, but this one delves that much deeper and is indeed one of the greatest recordings of Schumann’s cycle in the catalogue. The Mendelssohn songs are perhaps not so memorable or so wide ranging as Schubert’s but Baker makes the best case for them, but the Schumann cycle is the real prize of this disc.

The tenth disc gives us the second side of her Schumann LP with Barenboim, a wonderful performance of the Opus 39 Liederkreis, and the whole of an all Brahms programme with Previn at the piano, the two songs for alto and viola (Cecil Aronowitz) and the Vier ernste Gesänge are deeply felt and wonderfully accompanied.

A Liszt recital (with Geoffrey Parsons) starts disc eleven, an excellent selection of songs, which are not performed as often as they should be. Baker and Parsons make the very best case for them. These are followed by a small selection from Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch and a couple of Mahler’s youthful songs.

Disc twelve is something of a mixed bag and brings together recordings from the beginning and end of Dame Janet’s career, a selection of Strauss songs from an early EMI recital disc, the Song of the Wood Dove from Ferencsik’s 1968 recording of Gurrelieder and Respighi’s La Sensitiva from recording sessions made for Virgin Classics in 1990, a gap of some twenty-three years. I suppose you can detect a slight loosening of the vibrations, but the voice is still very firm and the artistry undimmed. Some may hear a slight lack of spontaneity in the 1967 Strauss songs (absent from the 1973 recording of Ständchen) and I’d have to admit I prefer the sound of a soprano in these songs, but I’d still rather too much care than too little. The Schoenberg might seem an unexpected piece for Dame Janet, but she is absoutely superb here, wonderfully intense and dramatically involved and the Respighi, recorded just after she had retired from the concert platform, is a lovely performance, warmly sung and senisitively phrased.

Disc thirteen is all of song with orchestra. The Brahms Alto Rhapsody was originally used as a filler for Boult’s Brahms Symphony cycle, then reissued as a makeweight for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and a selction of Strauss songs Baker and Boult recorded in 1975. The Alto Rhapsody and the Wagner are absolutely superb, indeed among the most recommendable versions of these songs. The Strauss songs suit her less well, but I’m still glad to have them.

This legendary recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures has never been equalled. It was originally issued with Du Pré’s equally legendary recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and is one of the best selling classical records of all time. The disc finishes, fittingly enough with Dame Janet’s wonderfully consoling and radiant singing of the closing pages of The Dream of Gerontius.

Now if I were allowed just one Janet Baker record on that proverbial desert island, I’d be hard pressed to choose between her Mahler and her Berlioz and  the next two discs are dedicated to these two composers.

Disc fourteen gathers together all the Mahler recordings she made with Barbirolli and adds Urlicht from Rattle’s acclaimed recording of the Second Symphony. All three cycles are amongst the best recordings of these songs ever made. The Rückert Lieder were originally issued on the fourth side of Barbirolli’s famous recording of the 5th Symphony with the New Philharmonia, the other two cycles having been recorded a couple of years earlier with the Hallé. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was recorded at the same time and used as a fill-up, which explains why they recorded the song twice. If I were to use one piece of music to illustrate the genius of Janet Baker, then it would undoubtedly be one of these two versions of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The song is not so much sung as experienced and you can really feel the connection between singer and conductor. To be honest, there is very little to choose between the two performances; maybe the later one is even more withdrawn, even more self-communing. When I listen to either I feel as if I too am lost to the world.

Disc fifteen is also one of the most desirable discs in this set. Baker was a great Berlioz singer and it has always been a huge cause for regret that she never recorded the role of Didon, making these excerpts more treasurable than ever. She recorded La mort de Cléopâtre again for Philips under Davis, another superbly impassioned and dramatic performance, but she is in slightly fresher voice here.

This Barbirolli recording of Les nuits d’été is, I think, her finest and indeed one of the greatest performances of the songs ever committed to disc. In his survey of the then available recordings for Song on Record 2, David Cairns makes it a top recommendation alongside Steber/Mitropoulos. She is possibly a little stiff in Villanelle but all is glorious after that and, with the inestimable help of Barbirolli, she unerringly captures the mood of each of the four middle songs especially. Le spectre de la rose is taken slowly but never drags, and the tempo gives her ample time to fill out the phrases, its climax gorgeously radiant.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade, which opens disc sixteen, was recorded at the same time as Baker’s superb Les nuits d’été and is wonderfully sung, though I’d say she misses that hint of inuendo in the last song that you get from Crespin. Nonetheless this is a beautiful performance of the cycle. The Chausson and Duparc were recorded ten years later, and there is a slight detioration in the quality of the voice, the vibrations have loosened a bit and there is a slight feeling of strain. She sings the Chausson with a greater sense of freedom in a live performance under Svetlanov only a few years earlier, but this is still a great performance with Previn and the LSO offering superb support as they do in the Duparc.

D’amour l’ardent flamme from La Damnation de Faust, which closes the disc, is one of the greatest ever recorded and it’s too bad that it is taken from a not very recommendable performance of the work under Georges Prêtre. If only Baker had been the Marguerite on Davis’s Philips recording of 1973, in which Gedda got to reprise his Faust under much happier circumstances. Baker joins Callas and Verrett as my favourites for this piece.

Baker was also a renowned interpreter of French song with piano and the lion’s share of disc seventeen is given over to A French Song Recital, which she recorded with Gerald Moore in 1969, songs by Duparc, Fauré and Debussy. It was logical to add the French items from a mixed bag recital of a couple of years later. These songs by Hahn, Massenet, Chabrier and Gounod demonstrate Baker’s prowess in a lighter vein. The Berlioz orchestral songs were originally coupled to her final recording of Les nuits d’été, recorded right at the end of her career. The voice is not quite the same as it was twenty years earlier, admittedly, but to be honest, very few allowances have to be made for the passing years.

One of the first discs Baker ever recorded was a recital of British songs, for the Saga label, and English song would often be a part of her concert recitals. This eighteenth disc brings together the second side of A Pageant of English Song (you might remember the first side was included on Disc 2). This time the composers are Parry, Stanford (a superbly impassion performance of La belle dame sans merci), Vaughan Williams, Quilter, Ireland , Gurney and Warlock, and the English items from her Favourites album. She was also much associated with the music of Benjamin Britten, but all her recordings were made for Decca, so it is good to have this one excerpt from Previn’s recording of his Spring Symphony.

When Walton’s Troilus and Cressida was revived at Covent Garden in 1976, Walton re-wrote the role for a mezzo, specifically so that Baker could sing it. The performances were recorded and the disc is filled out with three excerpts from that recording.

The penultimate disc starts with the remaining item from her 1972 Favourites album (Mendlessohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges) and continues with two arias from the 1968 Frühbeck de Burgos recording of Elijah, her singing of O rest in the Lord sung with a sincerity and compassion that enfolds you in its warm embrace.

It was perhaps an unfortunate idea to present the Mendelssohn Psalm of twenty years later straight after, for she sounds uncharacteristically tentative and strained in the solos, which are, in any case, designated for soprano. The concert aria that follows fares a little better as the tessitura lies slightly lower, but these are not performances I would want to listen to often. On the other hand, the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, recorded the same year, is rather wonderful and probably the gem of these late sessions. It lies a lot lower of course, so the sounds a great deal more comfortable, and it is a wonderful memento of the moving performance I heard these same artists give of the work at the Barbican round about the time of this recording and shortly before she retired. As in the live performance, the moment when the music shifts from the minor to the major is a moment of pure magic. This is definitely the prize of these late recording sessions.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the final disc in this wonderful set is the only one I would call dispensable, though I was actually pleasantly surprised by this 1990 performance of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. She takes a little less time over the songs now, and this performance comes in around three minutes shorter than the Barbirolli. She still has an innate understanding of Berlioz and the way to shape and mould the phrases, but there is also a slight feeling of her husbanding her resources where the Barbirolli (and the live Giulini) find her in full vocal plenitude. They are still the ones I would reach for when wanting to hear Baker in this work.

The remaning items are from a 1980 disc called Songs for Sunday which will no doubt be more to some people’s taste than to mine. She sings with her customary sincerity and generosity of spirit, but I don’t really respond to the religious sentimentality of the material.

However these twenty discs have confirmed for me Baker’s place as one of the greatest singers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Her records continue to educate and enthral. There is something so personal about Baker’s art, a sense of total identification with the composer in question and an innate ability to capture the right mood of each song. This goes hand in hand with a gift for communication which is vouchsafed to only a few. Just occasionally one can be aware of the huge amount of thought that has gone into each interpretation, but I’d rather too much intelligence than too little. It has been  interesting too to hear her collaborations with so many different musicians. How lucky we are that she left behind her such a rich and varied legacy.

 

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.