The Voice of Janet Baker
rec. 1960-66
HERITAGE HTGCD290/1 [52:08 + 73:46]

Do you ever get annoyed when you hear some vacuous ‘celeb’ or overpaid sportsman described as a ‘national treasure’? I do – very! Here, on the other hand, is someone who truly deserves that description. Not only is Dame Janet Baker one of the genuinely great female singers of the past fifty years or so, but she conducted herself throughout her blessedly long career with exceptional dignity and integrity. Her key was hard work and thorough preparation, driven by an utter commitment to the music she sang. Audiences loved her, but she made no vulgar concessions, preparing to come between them and the music as little as humanly possible. She has remained a private but not secretive person, and an interview with Norman Lebrecht on Radio 3 not long ago showed someone utterly grounded, and full of gratitude for her life of music.

This collection comes from quite early in her career, and some music-lovers will be ‘mature’ enough — excuse the euphemism — to have bought the original Saga LPs on which these CDs are largely based. If you haven’t heard her recordings of this vintage before, you will be pleased to discover that her vocal prowess and her musicianship seem to have been fully in place by 1960, when, let’s remember, she was just 27 years old.

The first of these discs is filled with German lieder from Schumann, Schubert and Brahms. She was a famous exponent of Schumann’s ‘Frauenliebe und –leben’ (‘A Woman’s Love and Life’), so this makes an appropriate opening item, and confirms the memory of the combination of intimacy and intensity which she brought to this lovely cycle. The range of emotions, though given natural limits by the subject matter, is wide, from the quietly ecstatic ‘Süsser Freund’ (‘Sweet Friend’), to the dismay of ‘Nun hast du mir der ersten Schmerz getan’ (‘Now you have given me the first pain’).

Then follow four songs by Schubert and four by Brahms. It’s appropriate here to say a word about her accompanist in most of the tracks on both CDs, Martin Isepp. His playing is a major joy, and the way in which he is able to bring out the expressive piano lines in, for example, Schubert’s ‘Heimliches Lieben’ (‘Secret Loves’) or Brahms’s ‘Von ewiger Liebe’ (‘Of eternal love’) makes him the ideal partner for Baker. There is an effortless unity to the pair’s phrasing and pacing of the music which speaks volumes for their mutual understanding, and for Isepp’s sensitivity to every nuance of Baker’s interpretations.

You’ll see that there are two recordings of ‘Von ewige Liebe’, tracks 16 and 17, separated by about five years. This is in any case one of Brahms’s greatest songs, and the comparison of the two versions is fascinating and instructive. The basic approach is the same, but in the later performance, Janet Baker’s growing authority means that she is able to invest more power and drama into the minor key sections, and the glowing, affirmative conclusion is even more thrilling.

The second disc is largely devoted to English song, but with a clutch of Brahms lieder taken from a live BBC broadcast from 1960 to round it off. Some of the English songs are more successful than others. I found Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Call’ lacking in natural flow, despite her obvious response to the lyrical line. Also I find it impossible to get the sound of the tenor voice out of my mind’s ear when listening to Gurney’s ‘Sleep’. That’s not a criticism of Janet Baker, and maybe it’s just my problem. This, as well as one or two of the others, notably ‘Youth and Love’, seem peculiarly suited to the male voice.

Other than that, she is marvellous, and her interpretation of some of the less familiar songs is revelatory: Michael Head’s lively ‘A Piper’, Armstrong Gibbs’s powerful ‘This is a sacred city’ (which compares more than favourably with Gurney’s great setting), and Herbert Howells’ remarkable ‘King David’, which has almost the character of a spiritual. There are also two rather fine songs by Thomas Dunhill, a composer that, in my ignorance, I have always rather written off; ‘To the Queen of Heaven’ is especially lovely.

The twelve concluding ‘bonus tracks’ of Brahms contain many gems; the vivacious ‘Ständchen’ (‘Serenade’), with delightful staccato playing from Ernest Lush is memorable, demonstrating the lightness of which this great singer was capable. In ‘Regenlied’ (‘Rain Song’), she captures the luxuriant melancholy perfectly. Something of a rarity is Brahms’s setting of Eichendorff’s ‘Mondnacht’ (‘Moonlit Night’). Schumann’s setting, found in his op.39 Liederkreis, is justly one of the most famous of all Romantic lieder; Brahms’ version has its own qualities, though it cannot rival Schumann for harmonic subtlety or the feeling of epiphanic stillness he conveys.

It’s a pity that no texts have been included, particularly for the German lieder, and the presentation of the booklet is a little rough round the edges. These are nevertheless precious discs, full of performances by a great artist at the height of her powers, sharing with us her insights into the riches of these works, and communicating them with such commitment and beauty.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Full Contents
CD 1
Robert SCHUMANN (1819-1856)
Frauenliebe und –leben, op. 42 [21:03]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Heimliches Lieben, op.106 no.1 [4:33]
Minnelied, D429 [2:07]
Die abgeblühte Linde, op.7 no.1, D514 [3:55]
Der Musensohn, op.92 no.1, D764 [1:59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Die Mainacht, op.43 no.2 [3:46]
Das Mädchen Spricht, op.107 n [1:14]o.3
Nachtigall, op.97 no.1 [2:30]
Von ewiger Liebe, op.43, no .1 [4:41]
‘Bonus’ track
Von ewiger Liebe
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Martin Isepp (piano), Ernest Lush (piano – bonus track only)
rec. 1965, Saga Records Ltd. (all except bonus track); bonus track taken from a BBC studio recital, broadcast 7 Feb 1961

CD 2 (Anthology of English Song)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Call (Five Mystical Songs, 1911)
Youth and Love (Songs of Travel, 1904)
A Thanksgiving (1938) [2:23]
Her Song (Songs to Thomas Hardy Poems, 1925) [3:12]
Michael Dewar HEAD
A Piper (1923) [1:21]
This is a Sacred City (By a Bierside, 1924) [2:19]
Love is a Sickness, op.44 no.1 (1922) [1:43]
Thomas Frederick DUNHILL
The Cloths of Heaven, op.30 no.3 (1916?) [2:21]
Balulalow (Trad.) [1:57]
Youth (1928) [1:30]
King David (1921) [4:22]
Come Sing and Dance (trad., 1928) [2:59]
Sleep (Five Elizabethan Songs, 1912) [2:59]
I Will Go with my Father A-ploughing (1921) [2:50]
Thomas Frederick DUNHILL
To the Queen of Heaven [2:18]
Gerald FINZI
Come away, come away death (Let us Garlands Bring, op.18 no.1, 1942) [3:40]
It was a lover and his lass (Let us Garlands Bring, op.18 no.5, 1942) [2:37]

Bonus tracks
Johannes BRAHMS
O wüsst’ ich doch den Weg zurück, op.61 no.8 [3:29]
O kühler Wald, op.72 no.3 [2:21]
Geheimnis, op.71 no. 3 [2:03]
Nachtwandler, op.86 no.3 [3:34]
Meerfahrt, op.96 no.4 [2:24]
Ständchen, op.106 no.1 [1:31]
Ein Wanderer, op.106 no5 [2:58]
Regenlied, op.59 no3 [1:41]
Das Mädchen spricht, op.107 no3 [1:26]
Mädchenlied, op.107 no.5 [1:48]
Mondnacht, WoO021 [2:40]
Auf dem Kirchhote, op.105 no.4 [2:51]
Martin Isepp (piano), Ernest Lush (piano, bonus tracks)
rec. 1966, Saga Records Ltd (all except bonus tracks); bonus tracks taken from a BBC studio recital, broadcast on 16 September 1960

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