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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) Dido and Aeneas
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo) – Dido; Patricia Clark (soprano) – Belinda; Raimund Herincx (baritone) – Aeneas; Monica Sinclair (contralto) – Sorceress; Eileen Poulter (soprano) - 2nd woman; John Mitchinson (tenor) – Sailor; Rhianon James and Catherine Wilson (mezzo) – Witches; Dorothy Dorow (soprano) – Spirit; St Anthony Singers, Thurston Dart (harpsichord), Terence Weill (cello)
English Chamber Orchestra/Sir Anthony Lewis
rec. 1961
bonus tracks
The Tempest: Arise, ye subterranean winds*; Halcyon days
Dioclesian: What shall we do?
Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Hervey Alan (baritone),*
Philomusica of London/Sir Anthony Lewis
rec. 1958
ALTO ALC 1210 [65.45]

This is a justifiably famous recording to which the word ‘legendary’ can properly be applied. There had been a couple of previous issues of the work, including one based on the Mermaid Theatre production of 1952 with Kirsten Flagstad, but this was the first recording to give us the work in a style that Purcell might have recognised. It enshrines one of Dame Janet Baker’s first performances on disc in a role that she made her own, giving us notice that here was a really great singer beginning to emerge into international stardom. There have been many recordings since, including a good many that are more ‘historically informed’, but it remains a superlative milestone nonetheless.
The edition of the score used here is that by Thurston Dart, who also plays the harpsichord continuo. This means that we do not get any interpolations of other music by Purcell to fill in the gap created by some apparently lost music at the end of Act Two. What we are given here is the version as it was presented in 1704, nine years after the composer’s death, and published in 1760 – the earliest score of the opera which we now possess. It treads a median line between the overtly romantic approach adopted by such singers as Kirsten Flagstad, Victoria de los Angeles (with Barbirolli in 1965) and Jessye Norman (with Leppard in 1985) and those many more modern versions which attempt to present the score as it might have been originally given with the modest forces available to Purcell in 1689. Those who want a more authentic Dido will obviously look elsewhere, but they will be hard put to it to find a performance of the title role to match Baker’s. She later re-recorded the opera in 1975 in the edition by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst - filling out Purcell’s score with not only additional numbers but also extra details throughout - which limited the scope of her imagination and nowadays sounds old-fashioned when compared with more scholarly editions.
The performance here is not absolutely perfect. Raimund Herincx is a rather blustery Aeneas – preferable to the unsteady Peter Pears on Baker’s later recording – although he shades his voice nicely at the end of Act Two. Monica Sinclair is way over the top as the Sorceress, producing a real cardboard villainess. Then again this may well be the way that Purcell wanted the music to be performed, and many ‘authentic’ performances go even further in the same direction. John Mitchinson, a future heldentenor in the making, is really very good as the Sailor in his one number. Patricia Clark, if not really distinctive, makes a nice impression as Belinda.
This set really stands on the basis of Baker’s Dido and she is marvellous. At several points she employs her white vibrato-less pianissimo which became her trademark in many later recordings, and of which she alone held the key; quivering with repressed emotion, achingly beautiful and sustained on an almost imperceptible sliver of breath. She is a real woman in love, richly romantic in tone but never stepping outside the parameters of baroque style. Purcell would have loved her.
This recording has already been reissued by Decca in 2000 as part of their Legends series, without the bonus tracks we have here. Presumably this new release has been transferred from original LP copies since the original recordings are now out of copyright. I have not been able to compare properly the relative quality of the CD transfers but the Alto disc sounds fine and full-bodied and certainly as good as the Decca version as available online. I have in the past sometimes commented unfavourably on the booklet notes provided by Alto. I am pleased to be able to report that the notes here by James Murray are comprehensive and informative. We don’t have the text but that is an omission that is easily rectified. All lovers of this opera should have Baker’s performance of Dido, and this is an excellent and cheap way to acquire it.
Paul Corfield Godfrey