Wednesday 17 September 2014

The voice of Isobel Baillie

Heritage Records - Isobel Baillie

Purcell, Arne, Bach, Handel, Haydn; Isobel Baillie; Heritage Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 10 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Welcome survey of recordings by the great soprano, recorded in the 1940's

When I was a student in Manchester in the 1970's I heard performances of Had I but Jubal's lyre from Handel's Joshua sung by two major singers of the 20th century, Dame Isobel Baillie and Dame Janet Baker. Baker was, of course, in her prime whilst Baillie, then in her late 70's was well past conventional retirement age. In fact the two performances compared favourably. Baillie's performance, given as part of a lecture recital celebrating the release of her autobiography Never sing louder than lovely, were testament to her stupendous technique. This new disc from Heritage Records enables a new generation of listeners to become familiar with Isobel Baillie's clear, silvery voice with a selection of items by Purcell, Arne, Bach, Handel and Haydn.

Whilst Baillie's voice might be described as silvery, there was a strength to it as well which perhaps went with her strong character. She made her debut with the Halle Orchestra at the age of 26, but by then had already had a 10 year career singing solos in recitals and oratorios in the various churches and chapels in and around her native Manchester. This was a period when virtually everyone seemed to put on an annual Messiah. Such performances probably required a singer to develop far greater reserves of strength than we would expect nowadays. Speeds were slower, orchestras far larger; when Kathleen Ferrier sang Messiah with Barbirolli and the Halle she complained how tiring one of the movements was and Barbirolli realised that she had never sung it in Handel's original orchestration, only ever with the additional instruments.

This recital opens with Purcell's The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation, one of Baillie's finest recordings. She had to badger the record company to record it, but is is well worth it. Her performance combines the fine sense of line, with fluency and urgency plus superb diction. Baillie was brought up as a chapel attender (a friend at university had a great-aunt who had attended the same chapel) and for her the words were always important. Works like the Purcell, and Messiah had a spiritual dimension which was important to her. Here and elsewhere on the disc this is reflected perhaps in the very directness of her performance, and the thrilling clarity of diction.

Some items will seem a little dated, but even with added clarinets Rejoice greatly from Messiah has a joy and a bounce to it which is infections. All the recordings date from the 1940's. Baillie did make recordings before this but like many English singers her recording career went into the doldrums during the recession of the 1930's. It was only the scarcity of foreign singers in the 1940's which brought her back to the studio.

The selection of tracks gives a fine overview of Baillie's career, with a goodly chunk of her blessed Handel. We miss out on something from her recording of Mendelssohn's Elijah, another work with which she was strongly associated, and we have no contemporary works. Baillie sang in quite a lot of 20th century English music and recorded RVW's Sea Symphony and solos from George Dyson's The Canterbury Pilgrims.

There is no opera. Though she only ever sang three roles on stage (Marguerite in Faust in New Zealand, Amor in Gluck's Orfeo at Covent Garden, and Isolde in one act of Tristan und Isolde recorded for TV), she kept many arias in her repertoire and recorded them. Perhaps more importantly there is no lieder, and Baillie was a great lieder singer; singing and recording the works in English to ensure communication.

This disc is very much a window onto the past. Few singers nowadays have the combination of purity and clarity of line with laser-like projection which Baillie had, but for me she still brings a very special something to her chosen repertoire and we must be thankful that she could record so much.

Update: A correspondent has pointed out that Baillie did not sing Amor in the post-war Covent Garden performances of Orfeo with Kathleen Ferrier, in fact it was in a pre-war performance. 

Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695) - The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation
Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695) - Stript of their green
Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695) - Har! The echoing air (from The Fairy Queen)
Thomas Arne (1710 - 1778) - O Ravishing Delight (from The Judgement of Paris)
Thomas Arne (1710 - 1778) - Where the bee sucks
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) - Shall Pales be the last (from Cantata No. 208)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) - My heart ever faithful (from Cantata No. 68)
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - As when the dove (from Acis and Galatea)
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Rejoice Greatly (from Messiah)
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - How beautiful are the feet (from Messiah)
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - If God be for us (from Messiah)
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Let the bright Seraphim (from Samson)
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - From Mighty Kings (from Judas Maccabaeus)
Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809) - O might pens (from The Creation)
Traditional - Comin' through the rye
O whistle an' I'll come to you
Isobel Baillie (soprano)
Recording 1940's HERITAGE RECORDS HTGCD273 1CD

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  1. What an interesting review . How important it is to keep the name and recordings of Isobel Baillie in the mind of classical music collectors. I would agree you can hear the dramatic qualities behind the light silvery tone. She certainly had enough power to sing the Libera Me in Verdi's Requiem and pass over the orchestra and chorus with ease.
    Just one thing , although Isobel Baillie sang often with Kathleen Ferrier in Oratorio, the role of Amor at Covent Garden was taken by Adele Leigh. You can hear her talking about this on you tube along with Veronica Dunne who played Euridice in that production. Sadly only 2 of the 4 planned performances took place due to Ferrier's ill health.
    Isobel Baillie was a unique artist in 20th century British music making, beloved by many composers. Really good to read your review.

  2. Apologies for getting the details of Baillie's performance in Orfeo wrong, it was at performances in 1937 conducted by Fritz Reiner


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