Wednesday 21 August 2013

Dame Janet Baker - a birthday tribute

Janet Baker - Kindertotenlieder - EMI ASD 2338Today is Dame Janet Baker's 80th birthday so I thought that I would allow myself to reminisce a bit, about some of the superb performances of her's that I had seen over the years. I was a student in Manchester in the mid-1970's when the glow of Sir John Barbirolli's artistic relationship with Dame Janet was still cast over the city. I remember vividly her performance in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (ironically with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Raymond Leppard) as well as song recitals at the old Free Trade Hall. (She sang Had I but Jubal's Lyre as an encore and interleaved Debussy and Faure settings of the same texts for the first half).

Other performances have tended to blur into subsequent ones, seen a few years later in Birmingham. It was there that I saw her as the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius at Birmingham Town Hall (this was well before Birmingham Symphony Hall).  But more than these live encounters she was the sound track of my learning large chunks of the classical repertoire, her recordings the benchmark.

Moving to Scotland I was lucky enough to capture something of her relationship with Scottish Opera. I missed the Didon, Dorabella and Octavian but did see her Orfeo (in a terrible production but a wondrous musical performance), the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, Purcell's Dido and Holst's Savitri and a truly heart wrenching Lucretia in Britten's Rape of Lucretia. These were all life changing performances, the sort that stay with you for ever and all the better for being captured in the relatively intimate confines of the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.

On a visit to London I caught one of her final ENO performances of Handel's Julius Caesar with Valerie Masterson as Cleopatra. Whilst the performance style might, nowadays, sound a little old fashioned this performance remains a touchstone and kindled my love of Handelian opera seria.

Having moved to London I attempted to see all three of Dame Janet's farewell productions in 1982. This necessitated queuing up for day tickets for Maria Stuarda at ENO, sitting in the Gods at Covent Garden for Alceste and promenading at the Royal Albert Hall for the Glyndebourne prom. Maria Stuarda was compelling, with Rosalind Plowright as Elizabetta, it is still one of the finest performances of a Donizetti serious opera that I have seen. Alceste was memorable, partly for the wrong reasons, for Ronald Hynd's rather risible choreography for the dancing boys. But it opened my ears to the glories of Gluck. Orfeo was less so, perhaps that performance was overshadowed by the one in Scotland.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology I have been able to reacquaint myself with the performances I had missed. I now have CD's of Baker's complete Didon from Berlioz's Les Troyens (in English with Scottish Opera and in French with Covent Garden), as well as a set combining her Scottish Opera (and only) Octavian with the Composer in Arabella.

There are far more performances that I have missed; in certain repertoire such as Das Lied von der Erde and much other Mahler, it remains Dame Janet's voice that I hear in my ear. There was something about her voice, particularly in music of resignation and regret, the seemed to catch one in ways which other singers rarely achieved.

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