As Dame Janet Baker accepted her Oldie Maestra of the Year, 'It's so lovely to be in a room full of happiness and joy – particularly in the world today.'
Dame Janet Baker, Oldie Maestra of the Year - Richard Osborne
It was not only the voice that was instantly recognisable; it was the personality, too. Here, one felt, was something altogether special – the genuine article, you might say.
At the age of 28, Janet Baker featured – ‘starred’ is not a word she would ever use – in what remains one of the finest of all recordings of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, her singing of Dido’s celebrated lament youthful, radiant and intense as none before and few since.
The voice was that of a high contralto with a full mezzo-soprano range. It was John Barbirolli who’d steered Kathleen Ferrier away from the dead-end career of the ‘oratorio contralto’. There was no such need with Janet Baker. The ground had been surveyed, the journey planned, the techniques acquired. The recordings of music by Elgar, Mahler, Berlioz and Ravel that she made with Barbirolli before his death in 1970 are a treasury within a treasury.
‘To stand a few feet from that man and be involved with the greatest pieces of music in the world – that marks one’s life,’ she told documentary-maker John Bridcut in 2019. The respect was mutual. Barbirolli meant no disrespect to his beloved Kathleen when he told Michael Kennedy, ‘Of course, Janet is by far the greater artist.’
Avoiding the fate of the ‘oratorio contralto’ did not absolve her from singing a good deal of Bach, and doing so with something of Ferrier’s own heart-stopping intensity. Yet she was equally at home amid the vocal dazzlements and more worldly concerns of Handel’s operas and oratorios.
If many of the protagonists he portrayed – Monteverdi’s Penelope; Gluck’s Orfeo; Donizetti’s Mary, Queen of Scots; Britten’s Lucretia – seem somewhat sober-suited, the characterisations themselves were always richly affirmative, lit from within. Nor was comedy entirely absent. A flirtatious Dorabella in Mozart’s Così lingers in the memory.
Dame Janet’s acid test has always been ‘Do you measure up to the talents you’ve been given?’. Stage director and Baker-admirer Peter Hall noted in his Diaries that her professional talents were never a meal ticket. They were, unambiguously, a serious responsibility requiring serious use.
Ninety this year, Dame Janet leaves a substantial legacy. As discographer John Hunt has observed, since she performed only works with which she felt a close temperamental affinity, her recorded output is as intriguing as it’s far-reaching – ‘one that will be a model of its kind for future generations’. By Richard Osborne, Oldie music critic