This 2 CD set makes it crystal clear what a very great singer Janet Baker
was. Now that, at the age of 69, she is appearing in public no longer,
we can assess the sheer breadth of her achievement, from Bach and
Handel, through Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, to Mahler and Britten.
This is no mere catch-penny compilation; the complete Elgar Sea
Pictures are here, as well as the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, the finale
of Gerontius and a whole series of marvellous Schubert songs.
Remarkable too is the list of great artists she worked with; conductors
include Barbirolli, Boult, Mackerras and Previn, while among accompanists
we find Barenboim, Previn again, and, of course, the incomparable
Baker achieved her matchless results by employing a glorious voice that
was in perfect harness with heart and head. She was a supreme vocal
actress, characterising and dramatising vividly, but also understood
the power of sheer breath-taking beauty, and used that capacity generously.
These qualities can be experienced in a song such as Schuberts
Gretchen am Spinnrade where she sees right into the pathetic
quandary of the young girl, so affectingly expressed by Schubert.
The first CD consists of orchestral settings, the second of songs
with piano. How to choose favourites from so many riches? The Alto
Rhapsody is profoundly moving, and is wonderfully accompanied
by Boult, with a particularly fine contribution from the men of the
John Alldis choir. The Mahler song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
is one that she did better than anyone else I know of, though I have
to say I prefer her other later recording with Barbirolli available
on CDM 5 66981 2 the sound is marginally better. Her Mondnacht
seems the perfect realisation of this quintessential Romantic
lied, and having Barenboim to perform the exquisite piano part is
a great bonus.
But for me, the pay-off comes at the very end. Two of Richard
Strausss most beautiful songs, Befreit and Morgen
have been chosen to complete the collection (I wonder did
Baker have a say in this choice of conclusion? I suspect so!)
Befreit is almost unbearably moving, reminding us of the
emotional control required to sing some of these songs, which
touch on very painful areas of human experience. Dame Janet was
not immune to this; when Barbirolli died in 1971 he was
a conductor so strongly associated with her in the first part
of her career - there was a memorial service at Manchester Cathedral,
at which the Angels Farewell from Gerontius was
featured. The Hallé played the introduction, Dame Janet
sang a couple of phrases, and then the emotion overcame her.
She was unable to continue, and sat down while the orchestra
played on to the end. She was a truly great artist, who gave
everything she had to her public, and these CDs are a fitting
and musically satisfying recollection of that.