With the exception
of the final song, the entire contents of this disc are taken
from two studio recitals given in the 1960s.
As anyone who has
heard her marvellous recording of the Alto Rhapsody with
Boult (EMI) will know, Dame Janet Baker’s voice was very well
suited to Brahms and here she is in marvellous, communicative
form. The very first song on the disc, Heimweh II makes a lovely, easeful start to the
proceedings and just hearing Dame Janet’s initial phrases reassures
the listener that all is likely to be well throughout the recital.
has a reputation in certain quarters for seriousness. In his
well-balanced and interesting notes Tully Potter quotes the
somewhat unfair – but witty – comment made of one well-known
singer who, allegedly, “would sing you Brahms’s Four
Serious Songs and follow them with four more serious
songs by Brahms.” As I say, that’s rather an unfair comment
and Dame Janet disproves it here with a well-chosen and well-balanced
recital. Brahms may not have expressed lightheartedness in lieder
in the way that, say, Schubert was able to do but he did have
a lighter side and Dame Janet does not neglect that side here.
for example, in Ständchen both she and pianist Ernest
Lush display a suitably light touch. Again, in Regenlied
Brahms has written the raindrops into the piano part and Lush
brings this out nicely. In a different vein, however, Dame Janet
conveys very well in Mädchenlied the sadness of the woman
who has no man in her life and, one imagines, is contemplating
a life of spinsterhood.
speaking the selection of songs in which Dame Janet is partnered
by Paul Hamburger are deeper in expression. The very first of
their selection, Feldeinsamkeit, features some beautifully
poised piano singing and a very well sustained vocal
line. Hamburger’s playing is perceptive too, though there’s
an important caveat about the accompaniments, to which I’ll
come in a moment. An die Nachtigall is as eloquent a
song as any on the disc and it’s beautifully delivered here.
offers us another example of Dame Janet’s ability to sustain line and
atmosphere; she gives a wonderfully poised reading of that song.
Just as fine is her rapt quiet singing in Nachtwandler,
where the notes seem to be borne along on just a thin thread
of breath. Controlled singing of this quality, with the singer’s
exceptional technique wholly at the service of the music, is
the hallmark of a great artist.
final item on the disc, Von ewiger Liebe, is, of course,
one of Brahms’s most celebrated songs. This item was recorded
in experimental stereo and it offers the best sound on the CD,
which reports a splendid performance of the song.
of the sound quality on that last track brings me to to the
caveat I mentioned earlier. The recorded sound, though adequate,
is not great. Dame Janet is recorded quite closely. That will
please her adnirers but, as the piano parts are important in
these songs, it presents an imbalanced sound picture. On my
equipment the piano sound accorded to the recordings with Paul
Hamburger is more resonant than that for the Lush contributions
and Hamburger’s playing is reported, unjustly, in a rather murky
fashion. As for Ernest Lush I wrote in my listening notes for
Meerfahrt that the piano sound is “fat” at the bass end,
and this is not untypical. It’s a pity because both pianists
play well, to the extent that the sound allows one to judge.
The sound is acceptable overall and I’m sure the transfer engineers
have done their best with the source material but I do regret
the imperfections of balance.
complaint is a perennial one about this series, I fear. The
texts and translations are not in the booklet. At one time texts
for BBC Legends discs could be downloaded from the web - itself
far from satisfactory - but now it appears that even that limited
facility has been withdrawn. As I've commented before in reviewing
BBC Legends discs, this is unacceptable. The discs may not retail
at full price - at least not in the UK - but they are not offered
at bargain price either. But in any event, this series includes
some very important archive releases, of which I'd say this is
one, and it really is selling the project short if texts and translations
aren't readily available to all listeners, which in my view means
including them in the booklet. This is even more necessary with
a CD such as this where not all the items are tried and trusted
despite these two reservations this is an important disc and
one that will give great pleasure since it contains so much
fine and deeply committed singing. It’s certainly a mandatory
purchase for all admirers of Brahms’s lieder or of Dame