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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Frauenliebe und Leben op.42 [21:39]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Heimliches Lieben D.922 [04:33], Minnelied D.429 [02:07], Die Abgeblühte Linde [03:55], Der Musensohn D.764 [01:59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Die Mainacht op.43/2 [03:46], Das Mädchen spricht op. 107/3 [01:14], Nachtigall op.97/1 [02:30], Von ewiger Liebe op.43/1 [04:41]
Dame Janet Baker (contralto), Martin Isepp (piano)
Recorded in 1965 for Saga
REGIS RRC 1225 [47:16]

In 1965 the young and promising Janet Baker, still billed as a contralto in those days but already displaying mezzo-soprano ambitions, recorded two LPs for Saga, that of lieder reissued here and another of English song. It says much for my youthful musical tastes that I bought the latter and not the former! But I did have access to the lieder disc and heard it several times.

Assuming that the sound quality of the two discs was roughly equivalent, Regis have done marvels in revealing that the rather gritty Saga pressings were actually hiding extremely good original recordings. They also provide texts and translations and an essay on Dame Janetís career by James Murray, so what walked in the back door as a dirt-cheap bargain is now revealed as a quality product.

And what quality! With her voice in its pristine glory, rich, even and refulgent, Baker had already evolved that interpretative style, in which a noble simplicity and a basically non-interventionist stance was married to an instinct for the colouring of the words and an ability to involve the listener by an inner expressive intensity free of tricks or rhetoric, which was to stay with her, with a few further refinements, throughout her career. Her reading of the Schumann cycle is one of radiance but also depth, the steady unfolding of heartfelt love. It is one of the great Frauenliebes on disc, and an individual one, distinct, for example, from Irmgard Seefried who is the eager, infatuated girl until checked by the final tragic dénouement, or from Elisabeth Grummer who sings as if from a position of retrospect, the sad end already known to her from the beginning.

There is, however, an aspect which puzzles me. I was critical of Kathleen Ferrier for having opted to transpose the songs down only a semitone (the normal edition for low voice is down a tone), thus being obliged by the tessitura to sing strongly and publicly where Schumann surely expected something more intimate. Janet Baker is down a tone, and the relaxed quality of the voice shows this to be right. But then, come the third sung and blow me down if she doesnít suddenly adopt the soprano tonality, remaining there for the fourth song and then going back down a tone for number 5 and staying there to the end.

There are several reasons why it would have been better not to do this:

  1. Schumann has planned the songs with a key sequence in mind; no. 3 is in the relative minor (C) of the preceding song (E flat). No. 5 is in a brighter key (B flat) than the preceding no. 4 (E flat). Here it emerges in a darker key (A flat). I remain firm in my belief that, when transposing a song-cycle, you must transpose all the songs equally.

  2. While I would not dream of suggesting that Dame Janet could not sing nos. 3 and 4 in the higher tonality (the singing as such is perfect), with no.3 we get the impression of a higher soprano voice entering and in no. 4 she gives, as did Ferrier, a strong-voiced "public" reading, especially at the climax. It is difficult to see how a contralto or mezzo-soprano could do otherwise given the tessitura; if we listen to Seefried or Grummer singing the same notes with much more gentle intimacy, we are presumably hearing what Schumann intended, something a lower voice can only achieve in a lower tonality.

  3. While specifying a high voice, Schumann actually keeps the tessitura rather low in most of the songs (hence the temptation for lower voices to try them in the original key or with minimal transpositions), but no. 5 is somewhat higher. During the first four songs Schumann has been creating a crescendo of trust and contentment which reaches its climax with no.5, something that is evident when the soprano voice, which has been virtually singing so far as a mezzo, suddenly becomes a full soprano. Just the effect Baker has already created at no. 3 by switching to the high voice version, and which she now negates by reverting to the low voice version. In other words, Baker has brought Schumannís carefully planned climax forward from the 5th song to the 3rd, undermining his subtle architecture.

So, beautiful and even wonderful as it is, even this Frauenliebe is flawed. I should very much like to know whether Dame Janet reconsidered the matter of transpositions later in her career. I should also like to know why I seem to be the only person who notices or worries about these things.

Baker also distinguishes subtly between Schubert, ethereally light, and the richly sonorous Brahms, by singing the Schubert songs in the high voice keys and the Brahms in the low voice ones. Now she sings the Schubert exquisitely, donít get me wrong, but when the Brahms begins the voice seems truer to itself. Put it another way; in the Brahms we hear what the voice is, in the Schubert we hear what it can do, and I would put a higher value on the first of these. Did Baker always follow this pattern? My only available comparison is a "Musensohn" from about 1980 with Geoffrey Parsons which is still in the high key, with some extra subtleties but perhaps less freshness.

Now donít be put off; this is a record of glorious lieder singing, beautifully accompanied with a warm-toned piano (which is not how it used to sound). Snap it up, but remember that nothing on this earth is perfect and there is a flaw here which could have been avoided.

Christopher Howell




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