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Janet Baker - An Anthology of English Song
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Call (1911, from Five Mystical Songs)
Youth and Love (1904, Songs of Travel)
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
A Thanksgiving (1938)
Her Song (1925, Songs to Thomas Hardy Poems)
Michael Dewar HEAD, (1900-1976)
A Piper (1923)
Cecil Armstrong GIBBS (1889-1960)
This is a Sacred City (By a Bierside) (1924)
Love is a Sickness, Op.44/1 (1922)
Thomas Frederick DUNHILL (1877-1946)
The Cloths of Heaven, Op.30/3 (1916?)
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
Balulalow (Trad, 16th Cent. arr Warlock)
Youth (1928)
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
King David (1921)
Come Sing and Dance (1928)
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Sleep (from Five Elizabethan Songs)
I Will Go with My Father a-ploughing
To the Queen of heaven
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Come away, come away, death
It was a lover and his lass
(both from Let us garlands bring, Op.18, 1942)
Janet Baker (mezzo)
Martin Isepp (piano)
rec. 1963, Saga STXID5213 (LP); ECD3360, SCD9012 (CD). ADD
REGIS RRC 1265 [44:52]

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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.

Rob Barnett 

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 dates with

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