Notes and Editorial Reviews
Janet Baker (ms); John Shirley-Quirk (bs-bar); Steuart Bedford (pn)
This is a souvenir of those heady days, during Benjamin Britten’s lifetime and just after his death, when annual concerts were given at the Maltings Snape in Aldeburgh. (I thought the name quite funny, and used to joke that the Maltings Snape sounded like the name of a sinister-looking ogre in one of Edward Gorey’s equally sinister cartoon books.) For several years, they referred to the concerts as
“Schubrittenades” because, aside from Britten, the older composer heard most often there was Schubert, who was Ben’s favorite Romantic era figure. (He turned away from Beethoven as a teenager because he found Beethoven worship “too obvious.”) Of course, since Britten was Britten, only those artists who were part of his inner circle were invited to perform, mostly Peter Pears, Janet Baker, John Shirley-Quirk, Sviatoslav Richter, and Steuart Bedford, who took over as conductor (in person and on the recording) of Britten’s last opera,
Death in Venice,
as well as recording the cantata that Britten wrote for Baker,
Anyway, here we are at the first Aldeburgh Festival after Britten’s death. Three of his favorites are present here, Baker, Shirley-Quirk, and Bedford, the latter as piano accompanist rather than conductor, and the fare is Hugo Wolf, not Schubert. Younger readers (meaning those 40 years old or younger) probably have no clue that this is how Lieder recitals once sounded, with full-voiced operatic singers emitting these delicately crafted songs. If they are put off by it, too bad for them. I should also add that there were other such Lieder singers like this during the 1950s and ’60s who were not part of Britten’s circle, such as Hans Hotter, Christa Ludwig, and Jon Vickers, and their Lieder singing was cut from the same cloth.
By 1977, Baker’s voice had become somewhat acidic in quality when singing
, a tendency the singer herself noted. It was not too many more years (five, I think) before she gave up singing opera altogether, and five more before she gave up recitals as well. Her interpretive qualities remained intact, however, and at times in this recital she retreats from the sound barrier to produce some exquisitely sensitive readings of these songs. As for Shirley-Quirk, his large, black bass-baritone voice, with its somewhat closed vowel sounds and Italianate vibrato, always sounded better in person than it did on a recording. (I heard him sing in the Metropolitan Opera production of
Death in Venice.
) Here, it takes the singer a few songs for the voice to warm up and settle in, but once he does he is marvelous, if somewhat more extroverted in interpretation than Baker.
Baker’s least pleasing moments occur in “Wer ref dich denn?,” where the breath pressure on a low note sounds slightly tremulous, and “Verschling der Abgrund,” Shirley-Quirk’s least pleasing moment is “Ein Ständchen Euch zu bringen,” but by the second half of the program, which starts with “Mir ward gesagt, du reisest in die Ferne,” both singers sound completely warmed up, far more comfortable singing Lieder in a high-ceilinged, resonant hall (it used to be a grain silo) and produce some of the greatest singing of these songs on record. If you’re looking for signposts, I would say that the more sensitive interpretations begin with “Der Mond hat eine schwere” and “Ihr jungen Leute.”
Bedford is not quite on the highest level of Lieder accompanists, but he’s not bad, either. My sole caveat is that he sometimes errs on the side of sensitivity, holding back from becoming emotionally involved in the songs, though at times (such as in “Wenn du, mein Liebster, steigst zum Himmel auf”) he does let loose in the closing pages of the song. Bedford is also responsible for the somewhat odd performing sequence, which skips around quite a bit even though all 46 songs are included. Obviously, he wanted to strike a balance between those songs a woman could conceivably sing and those obviously intended for a male voice, alternating the two singers throughout most of the recital, though Baker opens and closes both halves of the program.
By the time this program ends, it is not only the singers (and pianist) who are much deeper into these songs, but the listener as well. And that is the weird and crazy thing about this recording: It really does come across like a real concert, so that you almost feel part of the audience. But then, that was the feeling one always got from recordings made at these concerts over the years. I still recall a three-LP set on Columbia Masterworks, no less (a particularly odd label for Peter Pears or a Schubrittenade to be on), in which Pears, Baker, and hornist Alan Civil gave the greatest performances I’ve ever heard in my life of Britten’s Canticles II (
Abraham and Isaac
) and III (
Still Falls the Rain
). These performances have the same great kind of vibe. It only ticks me off that one has to go to the label’s website to download texts and translations of these songs. Otherwise, this would certainly be my first choice for this cycle.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Italienisches Liederbuch by Hugo Wolf
John Shirley-Quirk (Baritone),
Steuart Bedford (Piano),
Dame Janet Baker (Mezzo Soprano)
Written: 1891-1896; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 6/19/1977
Venue: Aldeburgh Festival
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