> The Very Best of Janet Baker [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Janet BAKER (b. 1933)
The Very Best of Janet Baker

J.S. Bach – Bereite dich Zion
from the ‘Christmas Oratorio’
Handel – He was despised
from ‘Messiah’
Mendelssohn – O rest in the Lord
from ‘Elijah’
Brahms – Alto Rhapsody
Mahler – Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
Duparc – L’invitation au voyage
Duruflé – Pie Jesu
from Requiem
Elgar – Sea Pictures
Elgar – The Angel’s Farewell
from ‘The Dream of Gerontius’
Vaughan Williams – Linden Lea
Britten – Corpus Christi Carol
Warlock – Pretty Ring Time
Fauré: Prison; Soir; Clair de Lune
Schubert: Ave Maria; Gretchen; Wiegenlied; Die Forelle; Auf dem Wasser zu singen; An die Musik; An Sylvia; Nacht und Träume; Heidenröslein; Du bist die Ruh
Mendelssohn – Auf Flügeln des Gesanges
Schumann: Mondnacht; Du Ring an meinem finger; Geistliches Wiegenlied
Richard Strauss: Befreit; Morgen

Dame Janet Baker CH, mezzo-soprano, with various artists
Recorded at many different times and places throughout her career
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 75069 2 2 [2CDs: 79:00+76:04]


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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 Gerald Moore.

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 Schubert’s 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 Strauss’s 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 Angel’s 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.


Gwyn Parry-Jones



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