Janet Baker: "Chausson, Berlioz, Schoenberg"
Songs and vocal pieces by Berkeley, Berlioz, Britten, Chausson, Finzi, Gluck, Lully, Marcello, Purcell, Schoenberg, Schubert, Vaughan Williams, Warlock. Isepp, Johnson, Parsons, piano; London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Del Mar, Giulini, Svetlanov. No texts or translations. BBC Legends 5006-2 (3)
Though long retired, Janet Baker needs little introduction to any collector of classical recordings. The Yorkshire mezzo's very personal timbre and detailed, often intense artistry are preserved on scores of major studio issues. Recently, some live performances from English National Opera and Scottish Opera (with both of which she was more closely associated than with Covent Garden) have been turning up. BBC releases include this three-disc set of material sourced from orchestral concerts and recitals in its coffers. The names of the composers represented here alone indicate the breadth of Baker's repertory: that there is not any Brahms, Cavalli, Elgar, Fauré, Handel, Mahler, Monteverdi, Mozart and Schumann (of all of whom she was a justly acclaimed interpreter) just affirms her stylistic range.
Most of these items are represented on previous commercial recordings, but Baker fans will want to seek out the live versions too. Some selections feature differences from the studio versions in vocal freshness or in presentation (an example of both is "O del mio dolce ardor," accompanied by Geoffrey Parson's piano in 1983, rather than Raymond Leppard's dubious 1981 orchestral support). This later traversal, while perforce "stylish" only as far as a mezzo can be in a tenor aria sung with piano, suggests some of Baker's interpretive limits. The love declaration of Gluck's Paride seems intent on "classical" severity (apart from rather ill-judged cadenzas) and lacks any sensuality of tone or access of joy. The set contains some novelties, such as Lennox Berkeley's neo-Brittenesque Five Poems of W. H. Auden (1958), that suit any voice type. Baker's readings are intelligent but a little generalized, in the Elena Gerhardt "Grand Priestess of Song" mode. By 1983, Baker's tone could be rather arid, especially on top, and so the Auden cycle finds it. But the mezzo follows with much more specific, emotionally committed and tonally appealing work in the Finzi cycle of Shakespeare settings Let Us Garlands Bring, which offers Baker very near her profound best. That top form and intimate connection to the material continue in the subsequent Vaughan Williams and Britten groups; "Silent Noon" from the former and "O can you sew cushions?" from the latter are particularly striking. Another recital with Parsons from fifteen years earlier documents a fuller, richer tone in songs by Purcell (rather grandiose) and Peter Warlock (rather unmemorable).
The earliest recording here (1963) is a powerful, arresting account of the Wood Dove's song from Gurrelieder, grippingly sung despite Norman del Mar's foursquare direction. For most collectors, Baker's 1969 traversal of Berlioz's Nuits d'Été with John Barbirolli is among her treasures and the 1990 remake with Richard Hickox among her mistakes in judgment. An opportunity to sample a 1975 "midpoint" version, with such a distinguished collaborator as Carlo Maria Giulini, seems very promising. But the cycle proves one selection for which the BBC's sound is somewhat tubby and imprecise; and neither the first song nor the final one (the lighthearted excerpts) evokes much charm in Baker's voicing. The central four go better; she has corrected the textual mistake ("qui vous faites mal") that marred the first studio "Au cimitière." More seriously, the Berlioz cycle seems to be the rare masterpiece quite alien to Giulini's sensibility, and despite Baker's efforts the totality falls rather flat. Chausson's "Poème de l'amour et de la mer" receives unexpectedly apt support from Evgeny Svetlanov, and Baker traces its curves skillfully; but a more sensuous timbre — such as that of Crespin or Norman — helps in this Gallic hothouse fare.
One entire disc is devoted to nineteen Schubert lieder, from recitals with Martin Isepp (1970), Graham Johnson (1977) and Parsons (1980). Few are additions to Baker's recorded repertory, but her collaborations with all three pianists were long-lasting and fruitful, and this is the most enjoyable disc of the set. The restrained pathos of "Die Götter Griechenlands" with Johnson and the disciplined simplicity of "Entzückung an Laura" with Parsons prove memorable.
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