Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

The incomparable
Janet Baker


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There will be as many ways to pile into Dame Janet Baker: The Great EMI Recordings as there are Baker devotees or newcomers. The great mezzo, who turned 80 in August, was, in a sense, a specialist in all of the genres to which she lent her voice – and perhaps more importantly, at the moment of singing a work of any kind, its supreme exponent. Emotionally charged as her singing was, she was also among the most sensible, you could say composed, of musicians, and deliberately stopped performing a quarter-century ago. Yet her currency among vocal artists is as if she last sang last night.

Between a quarter and a third of the items in this invaluable 20-disc collection appear on CD for the first time, in exemplary re-masterings. I plowed through the superbly annotated booklet until I found, on disc 11, the four songs from the Geistliche Lieder of Hugo Wolf's Spanisches Liederbuch, which Baker recorded in 1967 (prime time) with Gerald Moore and first appeared at the end of a double-LP set of Schubert and Strauss songs. My LPs didn't make it to Asia with me, but it turns out Baker's achingly beautiful performances of those four songs were exactly as I had remembered them. In "Herr, was traegt der Boden hier?," I was pierced once again by the thorn in god's garland. It's one of the things about Baker's singing: striking effects are so genuine that they make the same effect no matter how many times you hear them.

If you have only one Baker recording, it's likely to be the Mahler orchestral song cycles with Sir John Barbirolli, still unsurpassed if perhaps equaled by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's. (The set includes all the duets the two so memorably recorded.) The musical and emotional peak comes in the hauntingly tranquil "Ich bin der Welt abhandeln gekommen" ("I've lost track of the world"), and the song reaches a quiet peak with the word "Ruh" ("Peace"), holding absolutely steadily while simultaneously yearning upward. It's unfair to call it an "effect" if you respond the same way to its unearthly beauty every time you hear it over four decades.

Baker erased the line between "live" and "recorded." To have heard her in the room was to be, repeatedly, struck dumb. But almost all of her recordings have a comparable presence, and many of them the urgency of the stage. The set is heavy with Schubert Lieder, few of which evoke the response "what pretty songs." Baker finds the beating heart at the center of each of them and threads its pulse to the listening ear. The three-plus minutes of "Aufloesung" ("Dissolution") invoke nothing less than the collapse of the spheres to allow fresh feeling to emerge, and Baker sings it as if in one breath, the whole cosmos orbiting around her outcry.

Early in my bewitchitude to Baker, I heard her sing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (arguably the best thing she sang) in a live broadcast from the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1973. I wish I still had the reel-to-reel tape that confirmed, on countless hearings, that she sang "O sieh! wie eine Silberbarke schwebt der Mond" on a single breath, ecstatically. It shouldn't be possible, but such was her technique, and breath control in particular.

Its equivalent in this collection is in her 1967 recording (again with Moore) of Strauss' "Befreit" ("Released"). This poignant song relates a spouse's release of the life partner to the next life, each strophe ending in a bittersweet cry of "O happiness!" The final "O Glueck," attacked softly, is sustained on a single breath, swelling and fading dynamically twice, for 18 seconds, a direct line to the next life.

There's lighter fare, in much of the English material and, particularly, the Scottish folk song settings of both Beethoven and Haydn. But mostly it's the big fish that drew her, and that she captured so decisively. Famous for the purity and pith of her French, she sang Berlioz's Les Nuits d'ete (at least the 1967 version) and Ravel's Sheherazade as well as any of her colleagues in the studio, and Chausson's ecstatic Poeme de l'amour et de la mer better than anyone. Her Elgar's Sea Pictures and Angel in Gerontius are still widely considered unsurpassed.

There's surprisingly little opera, though the two excerpts from Dido in Les Troyens are scorchers, and the "Disprezzata Regina" and "Addio Roma" from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea – early entrants into the historical performance movement – have yet to be surpassed. But for Baker at her most dramatic, there are two unforgettable cantatas, Handel's Armida Abbandonata and Berlioz's La Mort de Cleopatre . Need more be said about a singer's range?

The flame at the center of Baker's art could warm, scorch, and brand. It was part of the thrill of being in its presence, listening in awe of it, knowing that at any instant it could burn you – and you'd be grateful.

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