As far as I can recall the Saga label was active from 1965 to
1972. It was the home for a numerous bargain price vinyls although
during the late 1980s a small part of its catalogue re-emerged
on CD. Their memorable LPs included the Bartok quartets from the
Pro Arte?, Mario Miranda’s luminous Goyescas, Charles Groves’
Bournemouth English music collection, John Ireland’s chamber music
with Tessa Robbins, violin (she who premiered the Goossens Phantasy
Concerto), Ireland’s songs sung by John Shirley-Quirk and
a Pelham Humphrey and Moeran song collection. By all means email
me with your own memories of the label and your favourites, treasures
and horror stories. Certainly the quality of those pressings was
not always wonderful but then, at something like 99p a go, what
did you expect when CFPs were £1.25. Mind you Decca Eclipses and
RCA Victrolas were also 99p a shot.
This Baker collection
was and remains iconic. Its 1960s LP derivation is clear from
the timing of just under 45 minutes; it’s a shame that this
was not declared on the outside of the package. The ambience
is a mite claustrophobic making the sound slightly boxy and
the piano over-lively and just occasionally thick-sounding.
Janet Baker was
born in Hatfield, Yorkshire in 1933 so she was thirty at the
time of the Saga sessions. There’s a strikingly attractive colour
photograph of Baker on the front of the booklet for which all
credit to Regis.
Her voice is powerful,
towering and it’s a wonder that the analogue stock held up so
well without distortion. Her tone is honey itself and if meticulous
attention to the shaping and articulation of the words can now
at times sound precious Baker’s musicality and intelligence
carry the day.
One of the most
moving and gorgeously ecstatic songs is the chimerical Youth
and Love by Vaughan Williams. This parallels the mesmerised
and mesmerising Come Away Death by Gerald Finzi. It is
given the mot juste in performance by Baker and Isepp.
A minor blemish is an edit at 2:39 that is too obvious when
heard on headphones. Microphone placement seems to shift for
Her Song (Ireland-Hardy) recorded a year after the composer’s
death. Baker and Isepp toll out this song with devastating artistry
and subtlety, the palette and tone in constant yielding response
to the words. I wonder if Ireland ever heard Baker – I hope
so. The Head song A Piper (words of Seumas O’Sullivan,
also set by Bax) lovingly explores the light-footed fantasy
of the words. Dunhill’s setting of The Cloths of Heaven never
seemed to me to really engage with the words. It is all too
sing-song and disengaged but this is not Baker or Isepp’s fault.
Warlock’s Balulalow with its slowly rocked cradling shows
much greater fidelity. It receives a wonderful performance with
Warlock’s sensitive light dissonances tugging the heart-strings.
Baker varies and brightens for Youth, a mirthful song
– resistance is useless – unthinkable, even. Is it however just
a mite lady-like for a song whose words include In
youth is pleasure. I think so. Herbert Howells’ King
David is a great song and receives a great performance both
technically and in its embrace with the words. The Gurney I
Will Go With My Father is poetically
lively alongside the same composer’s famously lulling Sleep.
The warmly sung Finzi song It was a Lover and his Lass makes
a perfect rounding out with its warmly buzzing and joyous excitement.
Baker is again irresistible; listen to the words And
therefore take the present time …. The disc was compiled
most artfully with the euphoric and the meditative-ecstatic
in symbiotic alternation.
This release has
a Regis lieder companion in RRC1225 where the very young Baker
and the not quite so young Isepp perform Schumann, Schubert
and Brahms. Isepp’s mother, Helene (not Helena), was one of
Baker’s teachers in London in 1953.
Much to your delighted
surprise you will find all the sung words printed in full and
in black and white in a legible size font. Less impressive is
that the front cover of the booklet claims seventeen songs (and
there are certainly that number of songs) including Let Us
Garlands Bring and Five Mystical Songs. There are
in fact two songs from the first and one song from the second.
Armstrong Gibbs has gained an uncalled for hyphen on the back
cover. Minor stuff in the face of this glowing
collection. The wonder is that Regis continue to identify and issue winner after winner.
All credit to whoever
was the guiding light behind Saga in choosing Baker for this
project. At the time of the sessions she had been a specialist
in Handel and Purcell.
The notes for this
disc are by James Murray, a Regis regular, who can always be
relied upon for a pleasingly detailed approach.
Another winner from
Regis and an instant draw for fans of Baker and of English song.
A note from Martin J Walker:-
The Bartók quartets on Saga
were by the Fine Arts, from whom I learnt
the works. Like many LPs & most
of the Sagas, I left them to my wife
when we separated. The FA also did late
Beethoven string quartets - I had Op.131,
the first Saga LP in my collection (and
surely by 1963 at the latest) - and
the Mozart Clarinet Quintet with Reginald
Kell, lovely, but I gave it to a dear
friend. The Saga LP that marked me most
was a recording of Pierrot Lunaire,
my introduction to the work and modern
music in general (after a Vox of Bartók's
MforSPC + the Sonata for 2 pianos &
percussion with Brendel, superb!), if
one excepts what I had been rather randomly
listening to on the Third Programme
since I was around 16 after my rock
'n' roll period ended. If I want to
listen to Billie Holiday's superb rare
radio recording of "I can't get
started" with the Basie Band I
still listen to that LP, though it has
probably been issued on CD by now. There
were live Charlie Parker sessions, wonderful
music & lousy sound - I couldn't
afford the studio Dials & Savoys.
As I was poor from the 1960s well into
the 1970s. I still have a lovely Sheila
Armstrong Lieder recital that introduced
me to "Nacht und Träume",
the date on that is 1969 & it's
stereo - my early Sagas were mono, as
I didn't have a stereo system till about
'66. I didn't have a lot of them, my
record budget being very limited &
I never had the Baker LP - I got its
later CD reissue. Wish I could assign