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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Admetus, King of Thessaly – Opera in three acts; English translation by Geoffrey Dunn
Maureen Lehane (mezzo soprano) – Admetus
Sheila Armstrong (soprano) – Antigona
Janet Baker (mezzo soprano) – Alcestis
John Kitchener – Hercules
Margaret Lenski – Thrasymedes
Jean Temperley (mezzo soprano) – Orindo
Norman Welsby (baritone) – Meraspes and The Oracle of Apollo
The Baroque Opera Orchestra/Sir Anthony Lewis
Recorded May 1968
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Geist und seele; cantata BWV 35
Janet Baker (mezzo soprano)
English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Recorded at Blythburgh Church, June 12th 1969
PONTO PO 1029 [3 CDs: 63.55 + 71.32 + 77.09]


A company new to me, Ponto (under licence from Mitridate), is dedicating a swathe of releases to the art of Janet Baker. A similarly recent issue is the 1973 ENO Donizetti Mary Stuart which, like this earlier Handel offering, is sing in English. I’m not aware that Admetus has been issued before and presumably derives from a BBC radio performance, though the tapes sound in good estate, albeit with some noticeable residual hiss and even if the recording acoustic is somewhat of its time and cramped and cold.

The singers are a disparate group – variously stellar, distinguished and now little known. Baker stands at the head but one should listen out for Maureen Lehane who takes the eponymous title role. Born in 1943, a contemporary of the better known Sheila Armstrong, Lehane was a decade younger than Baker and sounds not unlike her in matters of timbre, tone and depth across the range. She has the full command of sonorous inflections and it’s not surprising, to one for whom she is "just a name," to appreciate that she was so admired for her roles in baroque opera. Her aria My fortune changes to reconciling is a particularly striking example of a Baker influence, and she copes well with some tough divisions and the occasionally ungrateful English translation. She is especially vibrant in her Act III aria How long the tigress waits and she forms a winning blend with Armstrong in the duet My beloved! Sweet reconciling! So it’s with admiration that one listens to Lehane – what is she doing now one wonders?

Sheila Armstrong’s bright and fresh soprano also makes a good impression. True there’s something of a hoot about parts of the climactic aria of the first act, The falcon keeps the skies, but she really impresses with some creamy legato in Act II’s My hopes uncertainly waver like some elusive star (probably it sounds better in Italian). Janet Baker is Alcestis and shows what a characterful and nobly expressive Handel singer she was. There’s great depth in her No cause for tears and sighing (Act I), whilst she demonstrates control over the nuances and timing of recitatives (a model in this respect is Act II’s For what purpose, Alcestis, have you disguised yourself – momentum and release are perfectly calibrated, for which the sizeable contribution of Anthony Lewis should also be noted). Amongst the high points is her final act aria Wherever my eyes discover sweet grasses with its accompanying solo violin line; veiled in tone, introspective in spirit, generous and powerful in feeling, commanding in technique and breath control.

The rest of the cast are less exalted but never less than serviceable. The men are inclined to be bluff and, maybe because of the deadening effect of the studio, somewhat unrelieved. I was however taken by Margaret Lenski’s singing of Act II’s Your wishes bind me. The orchestral playing is characterful; not always spotless it’s true (one or two dodgy horn moments in the first act et al) which sits very well in the middle of her voice. Lewis, who of course made a famous recording of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Baker is a musician whose stock has sunk to near invisible and inaudible depths - which is a pity as his influence has been considerable. His Sosarme is available (Opera d’oro), his Purcell, not just the Dido, on Decca Rosette, but little else. None of the orchestral musicians are noted but it would be intriguing to know who sat in the Baroque Opera Orchesta – who the harpsichordist, first violin and wind principals were, for instance. This is an intriguing reclamation though clearly given the provenance, the fact that it’s rather bleakly recorded and sung in English - and cut – it’s more of a specialist purchase. To tempt one further there is a lengthy souvenir of Baker’s association with Britten; Bach from Blythburgh in June 1969. The Cantata Geist und seele embodies elements of keyboard concerti but Baker brings great gravity to her long aria Geist und seele wird verwirret and manages – taking her breath just in time! – the difficult runs of the concluding Ich wünsche.

There’s no libretto and biographical notes only about the three principal soloists. Additionally the exact circumstances of the performances are shrouded in silence. But for Baker’s admirers this is welcome example of her art, albeit not in the main role; there may be less of her than you’d ideally like. The advantage of that is reacquaintace with Armstrong and a maybe first opportunity to hear Lehane.

Jonathan Woolf


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