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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Opera Arias: Armide: Le perfide Renaud me fuit [07:55]; Iphigénie en Aulide: Vous essayez en vain – Par la crainte [03:39]; Iphigénie en Tauride: Non, cet affreux devoir [04:25]; Iphigénie en Aulide: Adieu, conservez dans votre âme [03:28]; Alceste: Divinités du Styx [05:20]; La Rencontre Imprévue: Bel inconnu [01:59]; Je cherche à vous faire [02:51]; Paride ed Elena: Spiagge amate [02:00]; Oh, del mio dolce ardor [03:12]; Le belle immagini [03:36]; Di te scordarmi [04:46]; Orfeo ed Euridice: Che puro ciel [05:39]; Che farò senza Euridice [03:46]
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo)
English Chamber Orchestra/Raymond Leppard.
rec. April 1975, London
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 476 2617 [52:36]

The British mezzo of her age in a repertoire whose statuesque qualities were inherently suited to her rock-steady, emotionally engaged yet regal style of delivery. In might be thought sufficient to note that the record is available again and exhort readers to buy it.

And yet, thirty years on, something needs to be added. I shall merely comment in passing that this is a midway style of Gluck interpretation between the old, post-Wagnerian style (to which Riccardo Muti remains faithful to this day) and the "authentic" manner that opts for original instruments and pungent textures, and would have several of these arias sung by a male alto anyway. The interpretation offered by Raymond Leppard of "Divinités du Styx", bouncy in detail while broad in outline, is memorable and also allows the singer to express the aria with refulgent tone and a sense of controlled, interior passion. Mackerras’s conducting of the same aria during Dame Janet’s farewell season in 1981 (issued by Ponto, see review) is more conventionally urgent but paradoxically more anonymous in feeling.

For the larger part of this programme Dame Janet’s gleaming upper register and rock-steady emission, culminating in some glorious top B flats in "Divinités", seem the ideal expression of her own emotional commitment to the music. Expression is not applied, it is not made by the voice, it is the voice. Undoubtedly it was this perfect marriage between vocal and expressive means which led to her adulation by the British public. However, it must be noted that, rather surprisingly for a singer who began as a contralto, a patch of her lower register – approximately from the F above middle C to the B above that – has a surprising lack of quality, almost a neutral sound. The notes are there, but they do not tell us anything. This is particularly noticeable in the "Paride ed Elena" extracts which frequently contrast phrases just above this area – which have a fine quality – with phrases well in it, which sound almost threadbare. In "Oh, del mio dolce ardor" (not "ardour" as printed in the booklet) she seems to be attempting to recapture a contralto sheen and at one point almost succeeds. Lower down still things are better, though this is not the part of her voice which speaks most powerfully. This seems to derive from a deliberate policy not to over-indulge her chest register; a refusal, for example, to resolve the "ministres de la mort" in "Divinités" with a conventional blast of chest tone. This may have been reasonable enough while she was still a contralto, since these notes are not particularly low for a contralto; mezzos, let alone sopranos, normally find they have to strengthen their timbre with a dose of chest tone to be heard down there. And since this particular aria is too high to be attempted by a contralto, nor even by all mezzos, the "conventional" solution is presumably the one Gluck had in mind. In the 1981 performance this lower area seems stronger (even if the refulgence it had when she recorded "Sea Pictures" at the beginning of her career while still a contralto has gone), but the top B flats verge on the squally.

It would appear, then, that her move from contralto to mezzo involved both losses and gains. She gained that splendidly shining upper register and was able to appear memorably in a number of operatic roles which a contralto could never attempt. She shed the image of the "British oratorio contralto". But the pristine quality of her original contralto register appears to have been lost. This disc closes with a vigorously forward-moving performance of "Che farò senza Euridice" [would those responsible for the booklet please note that by omitting that accent from "farò", they have changed the meaning from "What shall I do without Euridice?" into "What a lighthouse without Euridice"] which seems a deliberate repudiation of the Ferrier tradition. It is also, strangely, sung in D major. I have always seen it printed in C and the recent reissue of a performance by Julia Hamari which scrupulously followed the original Vienna version had it in that key. Curiously, two historical performances, the Thorborg/Leinsdorf and the Barbieri/Furtwängler, if transferred at the correct pitch, are in D flat. C is a real contralto key – Gluck actually had a male alto in mind – and it is understandable that a mezzo would find it easier to give her all to the climax in a slightly higher key. But did Dame Janet have it transposed for performances of the complete opera, and if so, what happened to the music on either side of it?

Queries apart, this is in general a thrillingly sung recital of music which, apart from the two arias on which I have concentrated, is not particularly well-known. Especially beautiful is "Adieu, conservez dans votre âme" from "Iphigénie en Aulide"; the arias from Gluck’s last comic opera "La Rencontre Imprévue" are flimsier and might have been enjoyed more if heard earlier in the programme instead of after the sublime "Divinités du Styx".

Some readers may think that my slight reservations are ungenerous towards an untouchable British icon. They may be interested to read part of the review in the EMG Monthly Letter of October 1976. Stand by for the blast!

"… One might suppose that Gluck’s lofty idealism would call forth a response in one of like integrity, but such is not often the case in this recital. Instead of the subtle inflections, the variety of tone colour, the changing emphasis in word-painting, we are given first-rate vocalization and some vivid contrasts of dynamics. Where, though, is the characterization essential to the realization of Gluck’s compelling dramatic genius? There is little to distinguish the despair of the deserted Armide from the noble self-sacrifice of Alceste. Where is the rapt wonder of Orpheus in the Elysian Fields, turning to sorrow when he mentions his lost bride? Who could believe, finely though it is sung, that the singer of Che farò is the same Orpheus now heartbroken at his second loss? … the whole thing is an example of the non-event devised purely as a recording, remote from any valid musical experience for the performers, or inevitably for the listener …".

We may wonder today if the anonymous reviewer (EMG had a roster of distinguished musicologists many of whom were writing out of contract, hence the anonymity) was hankering after the "old" style of interpretation which treated Gluck as a 19th century composer, or was looking forward to the "authentic" rediscovery of the classical style then in its infancy? As I said at the beginning, this is a midway style of interpretation and the disc is likely to appeal more to Dame Janet’s numerous fans rather than those in search of Gluck.

I also learn from the EMG review that the original issue had texts and translations (no such luck today!) and that "the whole approach is typified by the fact that no information is provided as to the context of each ‘number’ – not even the name of the character concerned!". The present issue has a note by Nicholas Anderson which matches that description entirely – presumably a reprint of the original.

Christopher Howell




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