Given that EMI decides which of its recordings are to enter the
series ‘Great Recordings of the Century’, the first question regarding
a new arrival must be ‘Is it?’. In this case I’d say yes, but
only for Kirsten Flagstad’s Dido. There are several accomplished
Didos on disc but for me only two great ones: this 1952 Flagstad
and Janet Baker’s 1961 recording, because both give a balanced
portrayal of the majestic queen and passionate woman. With Flagstad’s
first appearance in the aria ‘Ah! Belinda, I am pressed with torment’
(tr. 3), because of her richness of tone and ability to attack,
we’re plunged deeply into grief and drama. Flagstad’s phrasing
and its progression seems to have an inner fire compelling the
expression forward, fast but never seeming rushed and accommodating
the roulades, for instance on ‘languish’ (1:50) as a natural expression
of the words. The two closing statements of ‘Peace and I are strangers
grown’ are shaded a little more softly and slowly, treated as
a reflective echo, as if the earlier veil of reserve gently slips
away. It anticipates the further meditation provided by the immediately
following ritornello for strings.
expansive 1952 approach to recitative seems more flexible than
today, merging more readily into arioso. So Dido’s ‘Whence could
so much virtue spring?’ (tr. 5) in articulation which points
up the rapid notes savours Aeneas’s valour with relish and colour.
It then treats the slower rhythms with expansive poise to depict
Aeneas’ softness in peacetime. ‘Mine with storms of care oppressed’
is even more vivid in its contrast as Flagstad’s Dido, divulging
her love, paints a self portrait of her inner turmoil yet capacity
for pity. This is an excellent example of how freedom in rhythm
and tempo and superbly judged phrasing, particularly at ‘ah!
– I fear’ (1:52) fully realizes the recitative’s dramatic possibilities
and shapes it to a fitting climax. That the recording was based
on stage performances given at the Mermaid Theatre gives it
a theatrical dimension, a key aspect of its authentic feel.
Come the final scene,
‘Your counsel all is urged in vain’ (tr. 34) has a gazing tragic
reflection of epic quality. ‘Thy hand, Belinda; darkness shades
me’ (tr. 36) has still more tragic edge which accords both weight
and immediacy. After this, Dido’s lament, ‘When I am laid in
earth’ (tr. 37) is more flowing, accepting, beautifully shaped,
a self-created perfect epitaph. ‘Remember me’ is varied in its
appearance from searing commands to pleading prayers. The purity
of Flagstad’s upper range is memorable throughout.
Janet Baker’s Dido,
with the English Chamber Orchestra/Anthony Lewis (Decca Legends
4663872) isn’t as rich as Flagstad’s but has youth and freshness.
In 1961 she was 28 whereas in 1952 Flagstad was 57. Hearing
her, you don’t think of Flagstad as old but as having the authority
of experience. Baker on the other hand definitely conveys the
impression of a young queen and her tragedy is the more poignant.
Baker’s ‘Ah! Belinda’ aria is also impelled forward and the
attention to authentic style, in ornamenting repeats, a touch
more artificial. She brings a brighter tone and more melting
softer moments Her recitatives are delivered at a more natural
speech rhythm which diminishes contrast and gives more emphasis
on their formal and less humane quality than with Flagstad.
Baker’s ‘Thy hand, Belinda’ is more feminine and fragile while
her lament has both stateliness and a pure, childlike simplicity
- a performance as riveting as Flagstad’s.
Aside from Flagstad’s
contribution this Geraint Jones version is uneven. He makes
a good case for an expansive opening slow section to the Overture
which is lachrymose indeed and sung by the strings with feeling.
This effect is however spoilt by a square and solid quick section.
The Triumphing Dance at the end of Act 1 (tr. 12) is similarly
stilted but the eerie miasma of the witches’ environment which
opens Act 2 is well conveyed by the sustained and soft treatment
given the Prelude (tr. 13).
Belinda achieves a stimulatingly sprightly ‘Haste, haste to
town’ (tr. 25) which inspires the chorus repeat to comparable
crispness. Her earlier ‘Pursue thy conquest, Love’ (tr. 10)
has, on the other hand, a rather ragged heartiness. Purcell’s
care in not upstaging Dido, whose role is fairly economically
treated in the opera anyway, by having several female soloists,
is thrust aside in giving Schwarzkopf other roles. She appears
as Second Woman in the court and the Sorceress’s Spirit, switching
to the forces of evil. So after a sweetly reflective ‘Thanks
to these lonesome vales’ (tr. 22) as Belinda she has to provide
a quite different perspective for ‘Oft she visits this lone
mountain’ (tr. 23) as the Second Woman. She invests this with
growing tension but the opportunity for an authentic and more
marked contrast of a different voice is lost. In ‘Stay, Prince,
and hear great Jove’s command’ (tr. 26) as the Spirit Schwarzkopf
is even more tense and peremptory in manner. Listening innocently
you may well wonder how her distinctive voice drifted into that
role. In the Mermaid Theatre performances, in which Schwarzkopf
didn’t participate, different singers sang the three roles she
assumes in the recording studio.
Sorceress is deliberate and concentrated but for me insufficiently
malicious; I feel that generally about the witches. The Lewis
recording may seem hammy in making their delivery very nasal
and the ‘Ho, ho’ choruses just a long cackle but that’s exactly
the contrast that was intended. For Jones, Thomas Hemsley’s
Aeneas fails to benefit from the slow recitative. Rather he
comes across as a limp poseur, at first prissy and later, when
he’s ordered to abandon Dido, crestfallen. At least Raimund
Herincx for Lewis is more manly. However, in fairness I should
point out that Jonathan Woolf reviewing the Naxos Historical
transfer of the 1952 Jones recording, to which I provide a link
below, has a higher opinion than I do of Mandikian and Hemsley.
As a bonus with
the present EMI GROC under review comes Flagstad’s 1948 recording
of ‘Thy hand, Belinda’ and Dido’s lament. Despite being faster
this is a more studied account. The recitative’s actual timing
in 1948 is 0:53, in 1952 1:05 but in the later recording the
greater poise to the pacing makes the articulation of the words
more graphic. The aria’s actual timing in 1948 is 3:54, in 1952
4:00. There’s an imposing, epic declamation in the earlier account
and a weightier, more sepulchral accompaniment. The later recording’s
smaller orchestra sings the line and so prepares for the smoother
vocal phrasing while the contrasting vocal pleading element
is only found in the later recording. In short, the later performance
is more lived, as you would expect following Flagstad’s playing
the role on stage at The Mermaid.
This new EMI transfer
gives plenty of immediacy to the vocal soloists. It’s a touch
smoother than its CD predecessor on EMI Références CDH 7610062
published in 1987 which is presumably down to EMI’s ‘noise shaping’
but not, I feel, so different that it would be worth replacing
if you already have the earlier CD. The present reissue does
have a preferable, more airy, open tone than the transfer published
earlier this year on Naxos 8.111264 (review).
The harpsichord is less prominent in the EMI transfer, and this
is to advantage. The violin tone is more crisp, for instance
in the ritornello of the ‘Ah! Belinda’ aria. The Naxos transfer,
though commendably smooth, being taken from commercial pressings
rather than masters, also has a trace of residual surface noise.
In a well documented
booklet note John Steane points out, as have other sources before
him, that the recording was made at Abbey Road on three days
in February 1952. Four earlier attempts to record live at the
Mermaid Theatre had proved unsatisfactory. I have cited the
Abbey Road dates in the heading. Curiously the present reissue
cites for the recording five Mermaid Theatre dates, 15-16 October,
30 November and 1-2 December 1951 but only one Abbey Road, 15
February 1952. Another intriguing point about this recording
is that Stephen Pettitt’s Philharmonia Orchestra discography
states “Recording ledgers make it clear that the Philharmonia
Orchestra participated in this recording under the name of “The
If you want only
one recording of Dido and Aeneas I’d recommend the Baker/Lewis
because Baker is arguably as fine a Dido as Flagstad. Also the
supporting roles and orchestral playing are more idiomatic,
as well as the recording being in stereo. If, on the other hand,
you wish to appreciate the range of expression and nuance within
the role of Dido, this Flagstad recording remains indispensable.