Summary for the Busy Executive: One of the most beautiful song recitals on record.
A while ago, I reviewed Bryn Terfel's album "The Vagabond" (Deutsche Grammophon 445946-2) which also takes up British song – sharing with the present disc many of the same composers and even two songs. I had very little enthusiasm for Terfel in this repertoire. Despite the gorgeous voice, I didn't think he sang it all that well and, indeed, in more than a few instances, sang rather badly, affecting a couple of vocal tricks as a substitute for genuine understanding and communication of the text. I feel very protective toward this repertoire, in many cases as lovely as windflowers and, as far as concert programming is concerned, as fragile. You don't encounter it much – unlike, say, Winterreise – except in recording, and it needs all the enthusiasts it can get. A less-than-wonderful performance can lead many to conclude the inanity of the music. I also admit that I had this Baker recording, which dates from the late Sixties or early Seventies, in the back of my mind. Comparisons may be invidious, but I really can't see Terfel coming anywhere close to Baker in the singing declamation of his own language.
Janet Baker scored a sensation on her first American tour, roughly thirty years ago. Accolades showered upon her like a heavy snowstorm. Harold Schonberg, then chief music critic for the New York Times, called her "the greatest British export since wool." She and Fischer-Dieskau were the two hot Lieder singers of the time and the models teachers encouraged their students to emulate. Even though they performed duets together, they approached singing very differently. Fischer-Dieskau appeared to concern himself with projecting the subtleties of text and finding precisely the right persona for the song. Baker's diction was her weakest point as a singer, and, although her acting convinced you, she defined her characters less sharply. The beauty of the voice itself, however, and her subtle control over the phrase made these criticisms light as dust and swept them aside. While I certainly admire and respect Fischer-Dieskau, I love Baker. She's that kind of singer.
The voice gleamed like silver – a glory and a limitation. She could convey nobility, the playfulness of children, Romantic love, innocence wronged, overcome, or triumphant, but not eroticism or wickedness: Gretchen, but not Carmen. In Vaughan Williams' Symphony #3 (the "Pastoral"), a solo voice – which I've always taken as the remote, impersonal beauty of nature – flows through the sonic landscape. That is my strongest impression of Baker's sound, though not of her singing, which strikes me as intensely personal.
The character of the musical "line" defines a musician – not the notes themselves, but the impulse, the sense of forward motion – behind the notes. Imagine a wave breaking against a rock and the force of it continuing through the breaker. It's how seamlessly, how effortlessly or excitingly the musician gets from one note to the next. You often hear singers (of all kinds of music, not just classical or pop) press out their notes in little sausages or shards. This is fine for music that happens that way. However, most Western classical music coheres in large sections. The ideal performance coalesces those sections into a quickly-apprehensible whole – as if the serial nature of music and time suddenly became spatial and architectural, as it does for Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse Five. A musician with great line gives us this experience. Such a musician also subtly shades the intensity of the line through diminuendo (especially) and crescendo, one hopes in a way that touches the audience "naturally," almost subliminally. For me, little is worse than hearing a hokey, sudden diminuendo or crescendo for no musical or textual reason. On the other hand, hearing a steady mezzo-forte or forte – in other words, a line with no "sculpting" at all – quickly dulls a listener's interest. A performance lacking linear intensity comes across as poky. Again, this isn't solely a matter of tempo, but of the inability to sustain tempo through line.
Baker begins high, with two gorgeous songs by Vaughan Williams – "The Call" from Five Mystical Songs and "Youth and Love" from the cycle Songs of Travel. Surprisingly – since I believe one tends to think of Vaughan Williams as a vocal composer first of all – songs for voice and single instrument occupy a very small part of Vaughan Williams' enormous catalogue. He tended to write them early and late in his career, with something like the Four Poems by Fredegond Shove a volunteer in the midst of large-scale work. "The Call," for example, the composer originally intended for voice and orchestra, part of a cycle for voice, chorus, and orchestra. "Youth and Love" comes slightly earlier, before Vaughan Williams had completely found his characteristic voices, and it's one of the rare songs intended for voice and piano. From the very beginning, we hear Baker spinning an utterly secure line. "Youth and Love," however, stands out in this regard, where Baker seems to take the entire song in two gigantic breaths. It's an illusion, of course, but brought about by her way with a musical line. Here, she suspends time.
John Ireland's song cycles have never caught on as such, but several excerpts and solo songs have continued to hold singers' interest, to the extent that British singers, at any rate, continue to program them. I don't find a distinctive voice in Ireland's music. His music generally reminds me of someone else's, even though he was often the first to come up with a sound or turn of phrase. "A Thanksgiving" ("Pleasure it is to hear, iwis, the birdes sing"), for example, sounds like Warlock. "Her Song," on the other hand, sounds like nobody in particular, and it's one of the finest Hardy settings I know ("I sang that song on Sunday"). It has all the spontaneous freshness of a folksong, though it sounds little like one. As Vaughan Williams used to say, saying the thing that's never been said before is less important than saying the right thing at the right time.
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs I know only through his songs. He is another composer who speaks in voices not necessarily his own. Vaughan Williams and Finzi sound through "This is a Sacred City," a steady dead-march with beautiful, unexpected chord progressions. The words by John Masefield recall the dirges in Elizabethan plays. Baker shapes it as what strikes me almost always as a steady crescendo. Yet an analytical hearing reveals swells and ebbs, apparently so finely judged that the final line ("It is most grand to die!") seems to release all the tension built up in one passionate outburst. In "Love is a Sickness," to words by Samuel Daniel, Gibbs tries on the tinkly Elizabethan manner of Peter Warlock. With considerable help from Baker, Gibbs makes the conventional wit sparkle, making one forget the silliness of the words.
Thomas Dunhill, like Ireland and Vaughan Williams, studied with Stanford. If he wrote anything other than songs, I don't know it. Like Ireland, he strives for beauty rather than originality. "The Cloths of Heaven," one of Yeats's loveliest lyrics, gets a lovely setting, one that Stanford himself, a brutal critic of his students, would have been glad to own up to. Apparently, the song was a favorite of Baker's, since I believe she included it many times in her recitals. Here, the lines
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet
get two dynamic spans, the arches of which occur at "dark" and at the "cloths" of the last line, followed by a tapering of dynamic. It all happens at low dynamic – with the highest volume less than a full mezzo-forte. Baker puts out a line smooth as Devonshire cream, and it all breaks your heart. This is her art in a small space.
Peter Warlock had three manners as a composer: a rhapsodic, in the idiom of Delius, a composer Warlock (and his secret identity, music critic Phillip Heseltine) revered; an evocation of Elizabethan song, shared by his contemporary Roger Quilter; and a final, highly dissonant phase. Warlock, a psychological mess, finally committed suicide. Yet, his inner pain seldom made it to his music, the Yeats cycle The Curlew standing as the major exception. Perhaps music served him as an anodyne for most of his life. "Balulalow" shows the Delius side of Warlock's muse, with chromatic side-slips spicing up the inner parts. This, by the way, is the same text set by Britten in his classic Ceremony of Carols. Baker and Isepp take a dangerously slow tempo, one that would mire many another team, and bring it off. The forward impulse is always present, and yet is not a matter of mere loudening, even at the climax. Baker and Isepp both gracefully shave the dynamic in the small span of time from the dynamic height to the end. "Youth," on the other hand, shows Warlock's Elizabethan idiom – rhythmically bouncy and brightly diatonic. The text, by Robert Wever, was a favorite of Warlock and his circle. At least three of Warlock's friends set the same poem (known more widely as "In youth is pleasure"), with E. J. Moeran producing a typically fine one. Baker shows here her great good taste. The persona is neither the jokey nor arch a careless singer can fall into, misled by the rollicking music.
Herbert Howells began as a student of Stanford and then a Vaughan Williams fan (he heard the première of the Tallis Fantasia and it changed him) writing finely-crafted, poetic chamber pieces and modest orchestral works. The death of his child seems to have stopped up most of his ambitions for himself as a composer. The bulk of his work consists of music for Anglican worship and choral. Most of it has the impersonality (and, I admit, the structural strength) of cathedral stone, with the exceptions of his mini-Requiem and the large-scale Hymnus Paradisi based on that work. The Requiem is a cry of pain for his lost child. The Hymnus tries harder for resolution. In his old age, however, he seems to have caught the bug for instrumental composition again, with a magnificent concerto for double orchestra, among other works. Everything I've heard is at least solidly written. However, the songs – many of them based on the poetry of Walter de la Mare – have long impressed me as among the best written in England. "King David" and "Come Sing and Dance" are pure gorgeous. De la Mare wrote the text for "King David." There's a jewel-box quality to most of de la Mare's poetry. Its effect comes not from what he says as much as from the beauty of, the music in, the language:
King David was a sorrowful man:
No cause for his sorrow had he;
And he called for the music of a hundred harps,
To ease his melancholy.
It takes guts to insist on a melody as beautiful as the verse, and Howells has triumphed with one so spare that every note gets its chance to glow. Yet it's not all tune. There's a narrative thread as well – a "plot" – that the singer needs to present to the listener. Baker fills the song with ecstatic epiphanies, often on words as simple as "He rose." The words are bone-simple. Other singers I've heard have no idea what to do with the phrase at all. Baker lets you glimpse heaven. By the ending,
And the king in the cool of the moon
Hearkened to the nightingale's sorrowfulness,
'Til all his own was gone.
both the king and the listener are healed.
"Come Sing and Dance" comes from folk sources:
From far, the angels draw near,
The song moves to a stately 3/4. Baker's handling of the opening conjures up the image of angels in file coming to earth from heaven. The eia s, to quick pentatonic melismata, are killers. Try singing them yourself without a lame slide or smear. Baker makes you a simple gift of these runs as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Another performance filled with ecstatic moments.
Ivor Gurney – a poet and a composer – was considered unmusical by at least some of his teachers. His poetry shows great individuality, within a Georgian idiom. He seldom achieved slickness or facility in his work. His musical output, as far as I know, is mainly songs and at least one major Housman cycle for voice and string quartet, Ludlow and Teme. He died young, gassed and shell-shocked during the First World War and in and out and back into mental institutions for the rest of this life. This album introduced me to his songs – two of his best, "Sleep" and "I will go with my Father a-ploughing." "Sleep," to words by Fletcher ("Come, Sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving / Rock me in delight a while"), was also a favorite of the Warlock circle, which certainly had its fair share of melancholics. Warlock also set the lyric. Gurney's version writhes torturedly through long, labyrinthine lines, which Baker negotiates like Theseus. "I will go with my Father" is one of Gurney's rare happy songs, to a perfect melody. Over thirty years ago, I heard Baker sing this and I immediately tried to buy the sheet music, trying to pry out its secrets for myself. Couldn't find it, so I painstakingly transcribed it from my LP, line by line. After all that, it still kept its secrets.
Baker's recital also introduced me to Gerald Finzi, a composer of great integrity and individual lyrical gifts. You can tell the author of his works after very little hearing. He composed both vocal and instrumental items, including beautiful concerti for clarinet and for cello. Still, for me, the best of him lies in the vocal and choral works. Finzi's output is small, first because he refused to "force" his music – he wanted the music to grow "naturally" and kept pieces in his desk drawer for years – and second because he had as much interest in promoting the music of others as of himself. In fact, he managed to steer publishers to Gurney's songs and to the string music of the 18th-century Mudge and Stanley. Finzi's known for his Hardy cycles, where he sets both the "easy" and the "difficult" Hardy, I think preceding Britten's masterly cycle Winter Words by a couple of decades. However, my favorite of his cycles is Let Us Garlands Bring, to lyrics by Shakespeare and dedicated to Vaughan Williams. Baker sings "Come away, Death" and "It was a lover and his lass" from that cycle. The first moves like a dirge – for my money, another perfect song. The second uses a mildly syncopated accompaniment to move lightly through its "heys, hos, and hey nonninos." The problem in both is line. Terfel does the complete cycle and comes up short time after time. In "It was a lover," he takes an unfortunate "walking on eggshells" approach which, with the heaviness of his voice, conjures up Rodney Dangerfield on tiptoe. However, "Come away" apparently flummoxes him. He doesn't seem to know what to do with the poetry and hides behind vocal affectations – sudden drops in dynamics for no good reason, chief among them. In comparison, Baker seems to be "just singing" – which usually means the victory of art. She finds different, totally convincing personae for each song, free from cliché or Generic Song Interpretation.
Of course, it's not all Baker. I've actually heard her unable to save a performance all by herself (until then, I thought she walked on water). Here, she gets elegant, subtle support from pianist Martin Isepp, who matches her intensity and smoothness of line. I think him as good as the legendary accompanist Gerald Moore – both great interpretive artists.
The sound quality is variable, as if recorded in different halls on different equipment on different days (in one case, within the same track, oddly enough; as if an engineer hit a switch by mistake), and one hears constant tape hiss. None of it matters a jot. A touchstone of singing. A joy of my collection.
Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz