Monday, 24 March 2014

Ancient Voices - Dame Isobel Baillie

If you mention Isobel Baillie's name nowadays, it would probably call to mind the 1938 recording of RVW's Serenade to Music in which she sang the top soprano part, or perhaps her recording of Elijah. But for much of her professional life (and it was a long one) Baillie was one of the most famous British sopranos. In the 1950's the top line-up for an oratorio would include her, Kathleen Ferrier and Heddle Nash. Her highly focussed tones are extremely distinctive, once heard never forgotten. And she preserved her voice into old age, I heard her perform at a lecture recital when she was in her mid 70's and the results would have shamed many far younger singers.

Isobel Baillie (1895 - 1983) had a career which is representative of a style of music making which has almost disappeared. She didn't go to music college and much of her early career was based in small concerts and oratorios in chapels, churches and halls around her native Manchester. And her career was a long one, she started singing when she was in her mid teens and was still singing in her 60's. In a sense she never stopped as I heard her in her late 70's still performing, still with that same superb technique (you can hear 1974 recording of Hamilton Harty's The Stranger's Grave on YouTube..

In 1921 at the age of 26 Isobel Baillie wrote to Hamilton Harty, then newly appointed director of music at the Halle in Manchester. She detailed her experience and requested an audition; Harty granted her an interview but to her surprise he did not audition her as he had already heard her. Baillie had sung in a concert for her singing teacher's son, Eric Fogg, and Harty had been there. Harty gave Baillie an engagement and it was the start of a long and profitable association. Baillie would be much associated with the Halle for the remainder of her career.


But at 26 she had over a decade of experience behind her, singing in the sort of concerts, recitals and oratorios that have very much disappeared from our landscape. Baillie's repertoire at this time included Messiah, Judas Maccabeus and The Creation, as well as operatic arias, and during this early period she never ventured that far from home. Her teacher was Madame Jean Sadler-Fogg, a former pupil of Blanche Marchesi, and for much of the time the young singer could not afford Sadler-Fogg's fees and paid what she could. This is a pattern which re-occurs in a number of singers of the period, the local training rather than college and the teacher who teaches talented pupils for less, because of their voice.

And what did the voice sound like? Clear, flexible, with a narrow focus somewhat in the style of a contemporary singer like Emma Kirkby, or perhaps Felicity Lott. One great conductor talked of her singing in the middle of the note, with no wobble. Her repertoire was almost exclusively song and oratorio. Though she included operatic arias in her programmes, she only sang in three staged operas: Amor in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Marguerite in Gounod's Faust and Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This latter was just act two and was for television. Baillie was certainly no Isolde, but that she could even attempt the role gives one an idea of the steel that underlay her voice. You only have to consider Baillie's recording of RVW's Sea Symphony where she soars effortlessly over the orchestra in a way which few modern sopranos seem to be able to to. In addition to this very distinctive sound quality she brought a very secure technique and strong musicianship.

Though Baillie is generally thought of as a Manchester soprano, she was in fact Scottish though spent much of her childhood in the Manchester area where she came from relatively humble origins, leaving school at 15 to work and becoming a clerk at the Town Hall. It was only some years later that she stopped working and devoted herself full time to singing.

Lieder she sang in English, very much from a sense of conviction that it was important that the audience understand. Her recordings of Schubert and Schumann lieder are in English.

Oratorio played a very important part in singers lives at the period, with the rash of Messiah performances in December providing annual fixtures in the calendar. The singer herself held strong views about performances of Messiah. When she appeared on BBC's TV programme Face the Music in the 1970's she made it very clear that she did not approve of the modern fashion for ornamenting Handel's music. Brought up firmly Chapel, with music forming a strong part of the religious experience, Baillie's Handel was a far more intensely religious composer than we generally admit nowadays.

In her autobiography Never sing louder than lovely Baillie talks about hearing Beecham conducting Messiah and take Rejoice greatly at twice the speed that she was used to. Baillie sang her first Messiah at the age of 15 and continued to do so for over 50 years. She devotes an entire chapter to the work in her autobiography and it makes for fascinating reading, giving a glimpse of a performing world and style which as vanished. But also making it clear that Baillie for all her strong minded chapel seriousness, had a clear sense of humour and nice down to earth quality.

Elsewhere in the book she jokes about a performance of RVW's Serenade to Music in the 1950's where the original cast got together again, and about her being worried for the platform at the Royal Festival Hall, as all the cast members were considerably heavier than they had been in 1938 when the work was premiered.


Original cast of the Serenade to Music
Pictured are Walter Widdop, Parry Jones, Frank Titterton & Heddle Nash (tenors)Roy Henderson, Harold Williams, Robert Easton & Norman Allin (baritones) Seated are Isobel Baillie, Elsie Suddaby, Eva Turner & Lillian Stiles-Allen (sopranos) with Margaret Balfour, Astra Desmond, Muriel Brunskill and Mary Jarred (contraltos), In the centre is Sir Henry, his legs crossed. Directly behind him is RVW. Taken in the Recording studio
at the first recording of RVW's
Serenade to Music.
The recording of the Serenade to Music is a valuable and fascinating document, giving a picture of a rather different performance style. It was also one of the few records that Baillie made in the 1930's. In common with most English singers she went into the wilderness during the period, with the economic downturn causing record companies to drop native singers. She only returned to the fold during the 1940's and 1950's, which means that we have a gap in her recordings when her voice was at its peak. No matter, she has left a significant discography, and one that is well worth searching out.

She talks in her autobiography of the recording process and how she never really enjoyed it. This was partly because the recording process did not easily cope with her voice (Eva Turner had similar problems in her recordings). Even in the 1950's Baillie would have to turn her head away from the microphone for the top notes and she herself felt that the microphones did not pick up all of the sensitive shadings in her voice. When she returned to the recording studio in the 1970's, it was to find that the more modern equipment was equally problematic. She herself attributes it to the purity and clarity of the sound.

One or two of Baillie's recordings are well worth searching because they seem to have captured her voice best, most notably Purcell's The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation and Elgar's The Sun Goeth Down from Elgar's The Kingdom.




You can catch an interview with the singer to celebrate her 80th birthday on YouTube.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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