Review By Dan Davis,ClassicsToday.com,April 2002
Janet Baker is one of those singers whose voice moves some listeners to tears and others to muttering imputations such as “matronly”. I’m a dues-paying member of the teary crowd, but under pressure I’ll acknowledge that in her later career Baker’s voice sometimes spread and she occasionally displayed a hooty quality, as in the early portions of this live 1975 concert recording of the Chausson Poème de l’amour et la mer. But such flaws are irrelevant when set alongside the personal, deeply moving timbre of her voice, the intensity with which she invests virtually everything she sings, her expressiveness, and her uncanny ability to fully convey the emotional point of the music. Baker made acclaimed EMI studio recordings of the major works
In the Chausson, Baker brings an extra ounce or two of intensity that makes the performance worth acquiring, notwithstanding the BBC recording’s back-of-the-hall perspective. EMI’s superior sonics enable you to hear more of the orchestra, and Previn’s conducting is atmospheric—but so is Svetlanov’s with the same orchestra at Royal Festival Hall. His slightly more expansive first section, La Fleur des yeux, is even more moving, and he wrings maximum effect from the brief Interlude.
With ample justification Baker’s studio recording of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été with Barbirolli has been considered one of the great versions of that score, but this 1975 Baker/Giulini trumps it. Although the studio effort boasts superior sonics, the BBC engineers remedy the diffuseness that afflicts the Chausson. But Baker “live” sings with a wrenching, yearning quality in the voice that endows these six songs with an emotional wallop even greater than that wonderful EMI reading. It’s also distinctive for Giulini’s conducting, which maintains tension even at his sometimes startlingly slow tempos. Le spectre de la rose, for example, clocks in at 8:21, but Giulini conducts with note-to-note tension and Baker isn’t unduly stretched. Even at that tempo she floats some exquisite high notes and the ending is pure magic. Sur les lagunes is sung with a numbness that makes you feel the pain, and the ache in the voice and subtle colorations make her rapt Absence deeply moving—even without the texts it’s clear what the poem is about. It’s not all gloom and doom either, for Baker’s bright timbre in the opening Villanelle is like a splash of sunshine before the clouds take over. In sum, this is a performance full of ardor and overwhelming intensity.
The disc closes with Song of the Wood Dove from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, from a 1963 LSO concert led by Norman del Mar. Here, the younger singer is in fresh voice, equal to the wide-ranging demands of the score. No one can fault her bright highs or deep low notes, her mastery of the dramatic narrat