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.

Ljuba Welitsch – Complete Columbia Recordings

 

 

Ljuba Welitsch, for the short time her star was in the ascendant, was undoubtedly a star, glamorous both of voice and personality. Renowned the world over for her Salome, a role in which Strauss himself had coached her, she was also known for her Tosca and Donna Anna. Unfortunately she had developed nodules by 1953 and thereafter, though she didn’t retire completely, confined herself to character roles, like the Duenna in the Schwarzkopf/Karajan recording of Der Rosenkavalier.

This two disc set showcases her Salome, Donna Anna and Tosca, as well as Johann Strauss (the Czardas from Die Fledermaus and Saffi’s Gypsy Song from Der Zigeunerbaron). The rest is devoted to Lieder and songs by Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Darogmizhsky, Mussorgsky, Marx, Mahler and Strauss, all with piano accompaniment, even the Vier letzte Lieder.

Whilst we get a good impression of the glamour and the silvery purity on high, the recordings do also rather show up her limitations. Best of the items is the 1949 recording of the Final Scene from Salome under Reiner, though, even here, I prefer the earlier performance she made under Lovro von Matacic in 1944, which, to my mind, has a greater degree of specificity. There is just the suspicion here that she had sung the role too many times; there is a touch of sloppiness in the delivery, which is complelely absent from the earlier recording.

She makes an appreciable Tosca, and something of her stage personality comes across here, but, I hear little of Callas’s detail or Price’s or Tebaldi’s vocal opulence. A tendency to be careless of note values is even more evident in the Donna Anna excerpts, where we also become aware of an unwillingness to vary the volume or colour of her singing. John Steane had similar misgivings in his book The Grand Tradition.

It is hard to think of a voice with a brighter shine to it, or of a singer with greater energy and more sense of joy in that sheer act of producing these glorious sounds. Even here, however, one notes that subtlety is hardly in question; there is little of the lithe seductiveness which Schwarzkopf and Güden bring to the [Fledermaus] Czardas, for instance. And this limits much of her best work, even the Salome in which she made such an exciting impression on her audiences.

 

These limitations are even more evident in the songs with piano, and, though there is still much to enjoy in disc one, I found much of disc two something of a trial to listen to, the voice just too bright and unrelentingly mezza voce. The Strauss Vier letzte Lieder can work with piano, as witness a recording by Barbara Bonney, but here I just longed for the greater subtlety and range of expression of Schwarzkopf or Popp, of Norman or Fleming. The Mahler had me thinking of the shattering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the piano accompanied version, and the Schubert and Schumann songs hardly begin to challenge versions by a range of different sopranos from Welitsch’s time onwards.

If I were to choose but one representation of Welitsch’s art, it would absolutely be the 1949 live recording from the Met of Salome under Reiner, but, for a recital I’d go for EMI’s old LP and CD transfer of the 1944 Salome Final Scene, which also has on it a glorious version of Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, a disc I reviewed a couple of months back here. This present two disc set is, I’m afraid, a mite disappointing.

Fritz Wunderlich – A Poet Among Tenors.

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As well as for DG, Wunderlich recorded extensively for EMI and this 6 disc set, now on Warner, has very little overlap with the DG set I reviewed earlier. Indeed it is amazing how much Wunderlich recorded in his relatively short career. Most of these EMI recordings were all made in the years 1959 to 1962. The exceptions are the excerpts from Klemperer’s Das Lied von der Erde, which was recorded in 1964. Some have doubted Wunderlich’s ability to ride the Mahlerian orchestra, suggesting that he might have had some studio assistance. Well we now have two live recordings of the work (under Krips and Keilberth, both with Fischer-Dieskau singing the lower songs) to refute that. Whether large or not, the voice had a fine ring to it and its heady beauty remained unimpaired whether at piano or forte. I think there is a discernible increase in its carrying power between 1959 and 1964, and I have no doubt he would have gone on to sing certain Wagner roles – Lohengrin and Walter von Stolzing at least.

So what do we have here? Well disc 1 starts of somewhat surprisingly with early German fifteenth century songs, then progresses through Bach, Handel (a sublime Ombra mai fu), Mozart arias from Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte (Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön slightly more diffident here than it is on the later Böhm recording), and excerpts from Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann and Der Wildschütz which rather outstayed their welcome for me. It finishes with excerpts from Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, including his glorious version of Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain.

Discs 2 and 3 are mostly operetta, with the addition of ecerpts from Flotow’s Martha and Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad. Wunderlich’s infectious joy in the act of singing made him ideal for operetta and though there is admittedly rather a lot of it here, he makes no concessions to the music; like Schwarzkopf and Gedda, he can make the music sound much better than it is.

However, for me the jewels of the set, with a couple of exceptions noted above, are all to be found on discs 4 and 5. Though all sung in German, we get some ideal performances of excerpts from Italian, French, Czech and Russian opera. Disc 4 starts with the Act I duet for Donna Anna and Don Ottavio (with Elisabeth Grümmer no less), in which he is both aristocratic and ardent, with a touch of the heroic often missing from singers of Don Ottavio. Wunderlich’s Mozartian credentials are further strengthened by the inclusion of both Don Ottavio’s arias and Ferando’s Un aura amorosa from Cosí fan tutte. Nemorino, the Duke and Alfredo’s arias are all treated to his golden tone and winning manner, his liquid legato hardly impeded by the fact that he is singing in German rather than Italian. There are more extended excerpts from La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, in which he is an ardent Rodolfo and Pinkerton (a glorious top C in Che gelida manina), whilst disc 5 gives us some lovely excerpts from French operas (Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche, Thomas’s Mignon and Massenet’s Manon and wonderful Smetana (The Bartered Bride). Best of all perhaps is his plaintive singing of Lensky’s Kuda, kuda, but he is also superb as Hermann in The Queen of Spades.

The last disc concenrates on Lieder; Schubert, Wolf, some glorious Strauss which might just have reconciled the composer to the sound of the tenor voice, and of course his headily free singing of the tenor songs from Das Lied von der Erde. It finishes off with a song cycle by his friend Fritz Neumeyer, which unfortunately rather outstays its welcome. No matter, these are wonderful reminders of a gorgeous tenor voice that shot through the operatic firmament only to be silenced too soon.

It remains to be said that the orchestral contrubutions are fine and it is good to also encounter the voices of Aneliese Rothenberger, Lisa Otto, Pilar Lorengar, Rudolf Schock, Hermann Prey and Gottlob Frick in some of the duets and emsembles.

The Very Best of Lucia Popp

 

Lucia Popp, who tragically died of brain cancer at the age of 54, is one of those sopranos everyone seems to love, and with good reason. She had a winning personality, an immediately recognisable voice of great beauty and a rare gift for communication.

She made her debut at the age of 23, a light coloratura, singing roles such as the Queen of the Night, Blonde, Zerlina, Despina, Sophie, Oscar and Susanna, but by her 30s had moved on to the lyric repertoire and her roles would henceforth be Pamina, the Countess or the Marschallin. She was also active on the concert patform and was a superb recitalist, and this compilation, taken from her EMI recordings, is a good example of her work in all fields.

Disc 1 concentrates on works with orchestra starting with a lovely rendition of Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, taken from a 1988 recital of Slavonic Arias. She is ideal in the two Smetana arias too, but the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, which closes disc 1, ideally requires a fuller tone. One appreciates the fullness of heart nonetheless.

Gorgeous in every way are the exceprts from the Frühbeck de Burgos recording of Carmina Burana, no doubt the main reason many of us consider his recording a first choice for the work. I was lucky enough to hear Popp sing Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder under Tennstedt at the Royal Festival Hall in the early 1980s and their 1982 recording has long been considered a top recommendation for the work, so it is good to have it here included in its entirety. A further reminder of their artistic collaboration is the inclusion of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no 4, where Popp strikes and ideal note of childlike innocence.

Disc 2 starts with some 1967 recordings of Handel and continues with Mozart, taken both from complete recordings and a 1983 recital, so we get examples of her Queen of the Night under Klemperer and her Pamina under Haitink (both often considered touch stones for the roles). I don’t know if she ever sang Donna Anna on stage and I’m not sure the voice would ever have been right for the role. None the less the line in Non mi dir is beautifully sustained and the coloratura section cleanly articulated in a way heavier voices don’t often achieve. The Schubert songs expose a slight lack of colour, and we note that she is better at expressing joy as in Die Forelle and An Sylvia than the drama inherent in Gretchen am Spinnrade. On the other hand that fullness of heart I spoke about earlier suits Strauss’s Zueignung to perfection.

If one were to find any other fault, it would be to note that her legato is not always perfect. She has a tendency to use what John Steane once referred to as the squeeze-box method of production, where each individual note is given a slight push which impedes the long legato line. One might also note that the voice lost some of its silvery purity in the later recordings. She was a considerable artist, nonetheless, and this compendium, which finishes with Popp letting her hair down in arias from Die lustige Witwe and Die Fledermaus can be considered to live up to its title.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – The Complete Recitals 1952 – 1974

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Issued to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Schwarzkopf’s birth in 2015, this fantastic 31 disc set brings together all the recital discs Schwarzkopf made in the LP age with her husband Walter Legge between the years 1952 and 1974, adding the live 1953 Wolf recital from Salzburg, with Furtwängler and the farewell to Gerlald Moore at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967, in which she shares the platform with Victoria De Los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It is a considerable achievement, covering operatic excerpts and a huge range of Lieder and song, both with orchestra and piano. It is not quite the full story, for their was to be one further recital to come, made for Decca in 1977 and 1979, and simply called To My Friends.

Schwarzkopf started out as a coloratura, singing roles such as Zerbinetta, Blonde and Sophie, but the voice was never entirely comfortable in the stratospheres, and she soon graduated from Sophie to the Marschallin, from Susanna to the Countess. A serious and dedicated artist, over the years she wittled down her operatic roles to a mere five (Mozart’s Countess, Donna Elvira and Fiordiligi and Strauss’s Marschallin and Countess Madeleine) so that she could concentrate on her recital work, which was her first love. The voice was not particularly large, but a warm, lyric soprano, shot through with laughter, her technique faultless and, though it lost something of its bloom in later years, it was always firm and true with no trace of excessive vibrato or wobble. She has been saddled for many years with the adjective ‘mannered’, but, listening to these CDs now, what I hear is incredible intelligence and specificity, a voice put at the service of the composer, not the other way round. People love to make fun of the fact that, when invited onto Desert Island Discs she picked all her own records, but, if you listen to the porgramme now, she uses them as illustrations of key points in her life. She was actually severely self-critical and those few records represented the best of herself and her collaborators, for she was quick to give credit to the conductors and accompanists she had worked with, and of course to her husband Walter Legge, who produced all her records. John Steane, who loved Schwarzkopf unreservedly, spent some time listening with her to her records in her retirement, and was surprised at how rarely a recording got her full stamp of approval. Listening sessions were interrupted by continuous cries of  “too much of this, too little of that. Intonation, missy” and so on, and just the occasional “ah yes, missy, that’s good”. In other words she was as hard on herself as she famously was on her students, who could find working with her frustrating, as she barely let them get a few bars out; but this was the only way she knew how to work herself, and what do teachers do other than pass on their experience to others?

There is a lot of music to get through here, though most of the CDs are rather short in length, being exact reissues of the LPs as they appeared, each in its own sleeve with the original artwork. The only cause for regret has nothing to do with the music or the music making, but with the fact that no texts and translations are included. This is a criminal omission with an artist like Scwharzkopf, who paid such attention to the words, colouring her voice to get the maximum amount of meaning from them. These days it should be easy to produce a weblink or CD-Rom with them all, and I’m guessing that most collectors wouldn’t mind paying a little extra just to have them. As it is, I am having to hang on to all my previous issuse of this material, simply to keep the texts.

So on to the actual discs and a potted review of each one.

Disc I. Schubert Song Recital with Edwin Fischer

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This is a classic recital, with Schwarzkopf’s voice at its freshest and loveliest, the lighter songs delivered with a delightful smile in the voice, the darker ones with an arresting sense of their dramatic potential. For instance, in Gretchen am Spinnrade the words sein Kuss are sung almost in horror, as Gretchen recalls the moment which sealed her destiny. Though always alert to the mood and meaning of the songs, however, there is also much that is admirable as pure singing, the legato superb, the line firmly held. Fischer is an estimable partner rather than just an accompanist. I particularly love the way he makes the piano accomaniment in Auf dem Wasser zu singen conjure up the image of moonlight bouncing off the water. A delight from beginning to end.

Disc 2. Mozart Operatic Arias

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Here accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra under John Pritchard (no Sir back then), Schwarzkopf sings a collection of arias from roles she did sang on stage as well as some she didn’t. Not many sopranos would attempt in the same recital arias for the Countess, Susanna and Cherubino or for Zerlina and Donna Anna, but, rare in Mozart, she brings a different voice character to each, all boyish eagerness as Cherubino, sensuous charm as Susanna, girlish seduction as Zerlina, who in turn sounds quite different from her Susanna,  and patrician elegance as the Countess. Her Donna Anna is not quite so successful, and of course we are reminded that her stage role was that of Donna Elvira, a role which she made very much her own, but Non mi dir is nonetheless delivered with a resigned sadness and the closing coloratura section rings out with real conviction. Illia’s Zeffiretti lusinghieri is altogether lovely.

Disc 3. Strauss Four Last Songs and Capriccio Closing Scene

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Through her two recordings , Schwarzkopf has always been associated with Strauss’s ever popular Vier letzte Lieder, though very few people can agree on which of the two recordings is the better. I tend to prefer the later one with Szell, both for the improved sound picture and Schwarzkopf’s more mature thoughts on the work, but both are superb, and this one benefits from her greater ease in the upper register. The closing scene from Capriccio, made before she had recorded the full opera under Sawallisch, is lovely in every way with the character superbly delineated and  the voice soaring out over the orchestra.

Disc 4. Strauss – Scenes from Arabella

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Staying with Strauss, these excerpts were recorded in 1954 and it always seems a pity to me that Legge didn’t record the whole opera. That said, the opera has its longeurs, for me anyway, and perhaps this is all that I really need. Schwarzkopf is perfectly cast as Arabella and is well contrasted with Annie Felbermeyer, who plays Zdenka here. Josef Metternich is a superb Mandryka, none better on disc, and the cast is fleshed out with such names as Nicolai Gedda as Matteo, Walter Berry as Lamoral and Murray Dickie as Elemer. Lovro von Matacic is much more in tune with Strauss’s medium than Solti on the roughly contemporaneous set with Lisa Della Casa, and, who knows, if this had been recorded complete, it may well have become the touchstone recording for all time.

Disc 5. A Lieder Recital

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Schwarzkopf returned to Lieder with piano for her next record, a mixed recital with Gerald Moore at the piano. It opens with Bist du bei mir (once attributed to Bach), and continues with mostly popular fare by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Strauss, with Schwarzkopf unerringly catching the mood of each song, whether it be the joyfully youthful exuberance of Schubert’s Ungeduld, or the wistful bliss of Schumann’s Der Nussbaum.

Disc 6. A Mozart Song Recital

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This Mozart recital with the great Walter Gieseking at the piano has deservedly achieved the classic status of the Schwarzkopf/Fischer Schubert recital. Recorded in 1955, it was recorded in stereo, and I put this down to the fact that Christopher Parker, who oversaw the stereo version of Der Rosenkavalier was the balance engineer. It was first issued in mono, and the stereo version emerged several years later.

It certainly deserves its classic status, as Schwarzkopf and Gieseking between them bring these simple songs to life as no other. I hear absolutely no artifice in the way Schwarzkopf characterises the songs, or in the way Gieseking mirrors his playing to her tone, making much more of the sometimes plain accompaniments than you would think was possible. They also manage to vary the approach to individual verses in strophic songs in a way which sounds completely natural. This is a wonderful disc.

Disc 7. A Recital of Duets by Monteverdi, Carissimi and Dvorak.

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Okay, so the Monteverdi and Carissimi duets are hardly authentic, but I can’t imagine anyone other than the most ascetic HIP advocate complaining when the singing is so beautiful, the voices charmingly intertwining and blending in delicious pleasure.

Schwarzkopf and Seefried had sung together on many occasions, and had already made duet recordings of the Presentation of the Silver Rose from Der Rosenkavalier (Schwarzkopf as Sophie, Seefried as Octavian) and excerpts from Hänsel und Gretel. Schwarzkopf was a huge admirer of Seefried, at one time stating that Seefried had naturally what others, including herself, had to work hard to achieve. Seefried’s slightly darker, more mezzoish timbre blended perfectly with Schwarzkopf’s brighter tone. The result is a winning combination, not only in the Dvorak duets that you would expect would suit them, but in the baroque items too, with Gerald Moore providing alert, lively support on the piano.

Disc 8. Walton – Scenes from Troilus and Cressida

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Walton didn’t have much luck with casting for his opera Troilus and Cressida. He had originally wanted Callas for the role of Cressida, but Callas had no interest in contemporary opera and so he offered the role to Schwarzkopf, who was slated to sing in the UK premiere, but she too decided against it, and the role finally went to the Hungarian Magda Laszlo, who spoke no English at all. Scwharzkopf did however record these excerpts with Richard Lewis, the Troilus of the original production, a few months after its premiere.

It is a great pity that she decided not to sing the role, for she fills its soaringly lyrical vocal line with glorious refulgent tone. Her English is clear, if slightly accented, and the recording is a fine memento of what might have been.

Disc 9. Songs You Love

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This 1956 recital is a collection of popular songs of the type that might normally crop up as encores in a recital programme, starting with Quilter’s arrangement of Drink to me only with thine eyes, and continuing with pops by Hahn, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Grieg, all much more well known back then than they are now, no doubt. Singing in English, French and German, Schwarzkopf brings as much care to them as she does to the Lieder of Wolf. A lovely disc.

Disc 10. More Songs You Love

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This disc turns out to be the one more commonly known as The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Christmas Album. This time she is accompanied by the Ambrosian Singers and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras in often gorgeously over the top arrangements of traditional Chiristmas carols and songs, though the disc starts gently with the original arrangement of Gruber’s popular Stille Nacht, on which Schwarzkopf is double tracked to duet with herself. Some might find it all a bit too sugary, but I love it and it has been a permanent part of my Christmas playlist for many years now.

Disc 11. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Sings Operetta

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And so to one of the first Schwarzkopf discs I owned, arguably the greatest disc of operetta arias ever recorded, and pure unalloyed joy from beginning to end. Schwarzkopf may have been born in what is now part of Poland and brought up in Germany, but there is something absolutely echt Viennese about her singing of operetta, and her recordings of operettas by Strauss and Lehár remain touchstones against which all others are judged. Schwarzkopf makes no concessions to the material and sings with her customary attention to detail, but there is absolutely no suspician of artifice or over-inflection and the disc is guaranteed to lift the spirits of all but the most curmudgeonly.

Disc 12, 13 & 14. Hugo Wolf – Goethe Lieder, From the Italian Song Book, From the Romantic Poets

 

Schwarzkopf followed three discs of lighter fare with three discs of Wolf Lieder. The discs are quite short and all the material was reissued at one time on a two disc set in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series, and deservedly so. I would urge anyone who gets the present box set to also acquire the GRC release, as that comes with fuill notes, texts and translations, absolutely essential when listening to Wolf, especially in performances as finely nuanced and detailed as these. Schwarzkopf’s name, along with that of Fischer-Dieskau, has been indelibly associated with the songs of Hugo Wolf, and they, more than any other singers, were responsible for bringing Wolf’s name to prominence after the Second World War.

Schwarzkopf’s ability to sing with a sparkling eye and a smile in the voice is particularly suited to Wolf’s lighter songs, but she also has the pathos for the Mignon songs, and her yearningly intense performance of Kennst du das Land is arguably the greatest performance of a Wolf song committed to disc. At almost seven minutes it is the longest song on these three discs, and Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore build the intensity in masterly fashion, using every colour at her disposal to convey every shade of meaning. Some might say that this attention to detail robs the performances of spontaneity, but I’d disagree. Though obviously thoroughly worked out in rehearsal, Schwarzkopf still experiences the song as it happens. Never have the words “mannered” and “arty” been so off the mark. Would that more singers today could sing with such attention to detail.

Disc 15. Schwarzkopf portrays Romantic Heroines

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Schwarzkopf never sang any of the three roles represented here, but there is no doubt she could have done. She makes a superb Elisabeth, greeting the Hall of Song in joyful radiance, sincerely sorrowful in the prayer, the tone pure and ideally floated. The two excerpts from Lohengrin are just as desirable, and here she is joined by Christa Ludwig, whose Ortrud is well known from the complete Kempe recording, where Elsa is sung by the wonderful Elisabeth Grümmer. There is no higher praise in stating that Schwarzkopf is her equal in every way. So she is too in Agathe’s solos from Der Freischütz, which have a beauty and poise rarely achieved. This is a glorious disc.

Disc 16. Favourite Scenes and Arias

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Though Schwarzkopf sang Mimi early in her career, she didn’t sing any of the other roles featured on this disc. We don’t really associate her with Italian opera, though she made two excellent recordings of the Verdi Requiem and was an infectiously high spirited Alice in Falstaff. She might have made an excellent Desdemona too, if this scene is anything to go by, floating the tone ideally in the Ave Maria and alive to Desdemona’s anxiety and foreboding in the Willow Song. Her Lauretta is all youthful charm and her Mimi lovely in every way. The Smetana and Tchaikovsky are both sung in German. She is radiant in Marenka’s solo and, if Tatyana’s Letter Scene misses something of the girl’s impetuosity, the slow section has a satisfyingly inward quality.

Disc 17. Strauss – Four Last Songs and Five Other Songs with Orchestra

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This is one of the most famous records Schwarzkopf ever made and has remained a best seller ever since its first release. I’ve had it in one form or another since my teens, and, though I’ve listened to countless other versions of the Four Last Songs, and come to love quite a few of them, it is still the one I hear in my mind’s ear whenever I think of Strauss’s great apotheosis to the soprano voice. Schwarzkopf and Szell remind us that these are, after all, Lieder and not merely vocalises. They probe more deeply into the valedictory nature of the songs than any other I know, and the recording has a rich autumnal glow, eminently suited to their approach. In the last song, when Schwarzkopf sings So tief im Abendrot the effect is of a cathartic release, as if the whole cycle had been leading up to that moment. I don’t hear that in any other performance, and for this reason, Schwarzkopf/Szell still, for me, eclipse all competition. The other five songs are hardly less fine. A desert island disc if ever there were one.

Disc 18. Concert Arias and Lieder

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No doubt the success of their Berlin recording of the Four Last Songs prompted Szell to take Schwarzkopf and Szell back into the studio, this time in London with the London Symphony Orchestra. The first side of the LP was devoted to Mozart concert arias and the second to Strauss Lieder, the two cornerstones of Schwarzkopf’s work with orchestra. For Ch’io mi scordi di te she is joined by Alfred Brendel for the piano obbligato, the two artists intertwining their voices deliciously in duet, and she brings her familiar virtues of aristocratic phrasing and dramatic involvement to each aria. Schwarzkopf had her misgivings about the Mozart items, feeling that, though they are musicaly fine, the voice had darkened too much for Mozart. Maybe she has a point, but I’ll put up with the less youthful voice for the dramatic insights she brings to them. The Strauss songs are all gorgeous and wonderfully characterised, the turbulence of Ruhe, meine Seele contrasting immediately with the gently lulling tone of Meinem Kinde, and so on. For Morgen, she is joined by Edith Peinemann on the violin.

Disc 19. Mahler – Des Knaben Wunderhorn

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This was recorded and released before the Mozart/Strauss disc, which made me realise the discs aren’t numbered chronologically. No matter, it has been considered a classic since its release in 1968. Like the Four Last Songs, I’ve owned it since my college days, and it brings back memories of listening in my tiny room in student digs all those years ago. Some feel that the interpretations are too sophisticated for the essential folk-nature of the songs, but I’d argue that Mahler’s wonderful orchestrations, superbly rendered here by Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra, already take them quite a few steps from their folk song roots.

Personally, I marvel at the intelligence, the detail and the sheer beauty of the singing. In comparison others sound just too penny plain. Is it interventionist interpretation? Well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it, but everything these superb artists find is there in the music, if you take the time to look for it. It’s also a real collaboration between all three artists, the duet songs being some of the highlights of the set.

Disc 20. Wolf – Italienisches Liederbuch

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This was originally a two disc set, recorded at sessions in Berlin in 1965, 1966 and 1967, Schwarzkopf re-recording all the songs she had recorded back in 1959. With the two foremost Wolf interpeters of the day accompanied by Gerald Moore it is self-recommending, and remains the set by which all others are judged.

The songs are presented in the order they appear in the book, which really is the best way of doing them, and are mined for every shade of meaning by these two great artists, with the inestimable aid of Gerald Moore at the piano.

Discs 21 & 22 – Brahms – Deutsche Volkslieder

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Before anyone starts complaining of too much sophistication, one should point out that these are not really folk songs at all. Many were inventions of nineteenth century composers, and, in any case, Brahms’s accompaniments turn them into songs by himself. That said, the songs are probably best listened to piecemeal, rather than at one sitting, when they could be said to outstay their welcome.

Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau bring their familiar virtues of dramatic involvement and characterisation to the songs, and, though some may find their interventionist approach “mannered”, I prefer it to the somewhat penny plain singing we get from so many interpreters these days.

Discs 23 – 26 The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Songbook Vols 1 – 4

 

The first of these discs collected together recordings made in 1957, 1958 and 1962 and was issued in 1966. Presumably the intention was to find a home for performances that had not otherwise found their way onto disc, and no doubt the success of the record prompted Legge and Schwarzkopf to put together three more discs in the same manner. It should be noted that Gerald Moore retired from the public platform in 1967 and, aside from a few tracks that were recorded before then, Geoffrey Parsons is the accompanist on volumes 2-4.

The programmes ranged wide. In addition to the more regularly encountered Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, they take in songs by Mozart, Mahler, Brahms, Strauss and Loewe, Debussy, Chopin and Liszt, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, Grieg and Wolf-Ferrari, though the Russian songs are sung in English or German translation.

Disc 27. Songs I Love

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Recorded at sessions in 1970 and 1973, with Geoffrey Parsons at the piano, this was, in all but name, another addition to the Songbook series, though this time concentrating on the two cornerstones of Schwarzkopf’s Lieder repertoire, Schubert and Wolf, with the addition of Schumann’s Der Nussbaum, revisiting material that she had recorded before. Though her artistry remains undimmed, we begin to be aware that this is no longer the voice of a young woman. Still there are rewards to be had in hearing how Schwarzkopf’s ideas on certain songs changed over the years, and we note that each new version is a re-thinking of what she had done before. There is never any suspicion of routine.

Disc 28.  Schumann – Frauenliebe und Leben & LIederkreis, Op.39

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This was Schwarzkopf’s last record for EMI, and she herself had her doubts. Ever the realist and her own strictest critic, she was well aware of the diminution of her vocal powers. In fact, had it not been for Legge urging her on, she would probably have retired sooner. “My voice was on the waning side, and all kinds of muscular powers had gone, and the breathing had gone. You can hear that the voice was getting old, surely. And one doesn’t like that and one tries to make do with all kinds of funny vowels, and oh dear it is really an awful thing.” She was particularly unhappy with Frauenliebe und Leben, which she felt should, in any case, be sung by a mezzo. “I made up by darkening the colour and all sorts of things.”

Of the two cycles, the Liederkreis is the more successful, but no amount of intelligent interpretation can disguise the fact that the voice is not what it was. Her final record was made for Decca a couple of years later, Legge’s rift with EMI being by this time complete. Legge died in 1979, and Schwarzkopf abruptly cancelled all further engagements. Without Legge’s constant encouragement, she was unprepared to continue. “He thought there woud be some moments which would be more memorable. But if you don’t have the voice you cannot put over what you would like to – you make ways round it technically, and by that time it has already vanished.”

Disc 29. A Hugo Wolf Recital

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For Disc 29 we go back almost to the beginning – a recording of a live all Wolf recital given in Salzburg in 1953, which was first released in 1968.

This was quite an occasion and something that Furtwängler himself had suggested. Wolf’s piano parts can be fiendishly difficult, and he apparently practiced hard for the occasion. There are some wrong notes, and some wrong entries here and there, “but it doesn’t matter. Furtwängler accompanying was an event, and so one had to do what one could to make it possibe. It was a service to Wolf, and to music, and a labour of love, that recital. With any other accompanist it matters if he cannot achieve the right tempi, but with Furtwängler it didn’t matter.”

Discs 30 & 31 – Homage to Gerald Moore

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The final two discs in the box are given over to the concert in February 1967, at which the musical world, with the aid of his three most regular collaborators, said goodbye to Gerald Moore. There are duets and trios, and each of the singers gets their solo spot, for Fischer-Dieskau a group of Schubert songs, for De Los Angeles a group of Brahms, and for Schwarzkopf, inevitably, a group of Wolf songs, starting with the song she made so much her own, Kennst du das Land. It is a joyous occasion, and the audience evidently enjoyed themselves enormously. It ends with Moore’s own solo arrangement of Schubert’s An die Musik, which is also a fitting end to this whole enterprise. However Warner have tacked on Schwarzkopf’s renditions of Abscheulicher! from Fidelio and Ah, perfido, which originally appeared as fill-ups for Karajan’s Philharmonia set of the Beethoven symphonies. Leonore may not have been a role for Schwarzkopf but her rendition of the big scena is surprisingly successful, the slow section having a wonderful innigkeit. She is immeasurably helped by Dennis Brain’s superb horn playing.

What a joy it has been listening to these thirty-one discs, all of such  consistent high quality. The word “mannered” has been overused to describe the art of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but, having listened to her almost exclusively over the last few weeks, it seems a long way short of the mark. I hear a singer who characterises, who makes choices based on the music and the text, who is never bland or merely pretty, though she can also make ravishing sounds, and these records represent an incredible achievement by one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century.

The Fabulous Victoria De Los Angeles

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This well-filled four disc set was issued to time in with De Los Angeles’s seventieth birthday in 1993, when, incredibly, she was still active on the concert platform, having made her stage debut in 1941. I don’t know when she officially retired, but she died just over ten years later. The set dates from the good old days, when notes texts and translations were included. Not all of this material is that familiar, so they are absolutely essential. Nowadays you are lucky to even get a web link to them.

The set concentrates on the recital side of De Los Angeles’s career and all the recordings date from the 1960s and early 1970s, with two discs of song with orchestra and two with piano or, as in the case of Falla’s Psyché chamber ensemble.

Disc 1 covers French song with orchestra (though not her wonderful recording of Les Nuits d’Eté, which was recorded for RCA). We start with one of the most recommendable of all versions of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, in which she is a vivid narrator, taking an almost childlike pleasure in the sights she describes. In the Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques she is the epitome of a young village girl, whilst the Deux Mélodies hébraïques bring out a more seductive quality in her voice. Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer exposes the occasional fragility in the voice, but is still a beautiful performance.

Disc 2, which concentrates on Spanish song with orchestra, would probably be my favourite of the four. It almost exactly reproduces a disc called The Maiden and the Nightingale, released in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century, though it omits that Granados title track. Favrouites here are the Montsalvatge Cinco canciones negras; wonderfully soothing in the Cancio de cuna para dormir a un negrito and irresistibly playful in the Yambambos of the Canto Negro. I also love Mompou’s El combat del Somni, especially the soulful Damunt de tu nomes los flors. Another joyful performance is Rodrigo’s De los alamos vengo, madre. We are reminded that De Los Angeles probably did more than any other singer to put Spanish song on the map.

Disc 3 brings us more French and Spanish repertoire, this time with piano accompaniment, or chamber ensemble as in Falla’s Psyché. Though her French isn’t entirely idiomatic, she is an ideal interpreter of Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Hahn. The performance here of Falla’s Sietes canciones populares españolas, with Gonzalo Soriano at the piano, is not generally considered her best, and it is true she is not as fierily earthy as Conchita Supervia, but equally valid in its more playful style.

Disc 4 is more mixed, and presumably covers material likely to turn up in her recitals as openers or encores. I have always treasured her performances of Fauré’s Chanson d’amour, which is sung with a delightful smile in the voice, and her ideal performance of Clair de lune, which captures to perfection its ancien style, but includes a wonderful change of colour when the accompaniment switches to a more fluid figure at Au calme clair de lune. All the piano accompaniment on this disc is provided by Gerald Moore and it also includes a group of duets (from Purcell to Tchaikovsky) with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, finishing off with a couple of extracts from Moore’s farewell concert at the Royal Festival Hall, with Schwarzkopf joining the pair for Mozart’s La Partenza.

To get a fuller picture of this lovely artist, one would ideally want some representation of her operatic career, but this one captures well many elements of the recital side of her career. As in all such compilations, I might cavil at some of the choices, but the programme over the fours discs is varied and enjoyable, and De Los Angeles always brings her inimitable individual stamp to all she sings.

 

Dame Janet Baker – Philips & Decca Recordings 1961 – 1979

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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.