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 Recording of the Week  Dame Janet Baker celebrates her eightieth birthday

One of our most beloved singers celebrates her eightieth birthday this Wednesday, and thanks to our friends over at EMI I had the opportunity to meet up with her at the Wigmore Hall last month for an in-depth chat about her illustrious career, her thoughts on the classical music industry today and what she’s been up to since retirement. It’s over thirty years now since Dame Janet Baker made her final operatic appearance (as Gluck’s Orfeo, at Glyndebourne) whilst still at the absolute height of her powers: though she continued to sing in concert and in the studio for a few years afterwards, she’s relished spending most of her retirement well out of the public eye, so it was an immense privilege to be granted a rare interview with her to coincide with the release of the beautiful commemorative boxed set detailed below.

Dame Janet Baker
Dame Janet Baker

Dame Janet told me that what she loves about this new set is its diversity: in terms of the time-span of the recordings and the breadth of the repertoire it’s a veritable Portrait of the Artist, ranging from her explorations of early Baroque music with Raymond Leppard in the 60s to her 1990 studio recording of Respighi and Berlioz under Richard Hickox. (This would turn out to be one of her very last performance projects, though she didn’t know it at the time). Especially in the Villanelle from Les Nuits d’été, the voice still sounds astonishingly fresh for a lyric singer approaching 60 – testimony, perhaps, to the wisdom of her choices when it came to operatic repertoire and to the rock-solid technique which she acquired very early on and barely needed to tweak as she matured.

Unlike many singers, who gain (or are encouraged to assume) extra vocal weight or height/depth as they age, she told me that her instrument remained essentially constant throughout her singing life and she was never tempted to push it beyond its natural comfort-zone. The few controlled experiments with more dramatic, Romantic repertoire on the set, though, are some of the high points for me: I grew up with her benchmark Purcell Dido, but her regal despair as Berlioz’s version of that character from Les Troyens took me quite by surprise, as did the slow-burning Wesendonk-Lieder (her one excursion into Wagner, which she relished!). And of course there are those Mahler and Elgar recordings, which really are the stuff of legend: she spoke very warmly of the pleasure she took in rediscovering this repertoire towards the end of her career, when collaborations with then-firebrands like Simon Rattle shed new light on works she’d been singing for decades. Happily, multiple versions of several key works are included in the set for comparison.

You can watch the interview in full via the link below – at twenty minutes it’s a fair bit longer than our standard artist-interviews, but we hope you’ll agree that it was worth taking a little extra time to celebrate an artist who was not only an extraordinary singer but who remains a uniquely inspiring and eloquent lady. (She’s still full of trenchant wit and Yorkshire bluntness, too – listen to her thoughts on outré opera-directors, towards the end of the video, and you’ll see for yourself!) So thank you, Dame Janet, for all those wonderful recordings and for sharing your insights and experiences with Presto – and a very happy birthday!

Janet Baker: The Great EMI Recordings

Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)

This 20-disc set from EMI includes classic recordings of music by Berlioz, Elgar, Mahler, Schubert, and many others. Nearly 25% of this collection has not been released on CD before, including Monteverdi and Scarlatti with Raymond Leppard, duets with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and several recordings of English and French songs.

Available Format: 20 CDs