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Janet Baker: at the top of the singer's art

There is no one around who can fill a Symphony Hall (or, as she did Wednesday night, a Carnegie Hall) more satisfyingly, or with more special artistry, than Dame Janet Baker.

The art of assembling and presenting a memorable vocal recital is one that few singers have truly mastered. Too often they throw in a song cycle or two, some Schubert, some French music, a few light pieces, and hope audiences won't note the missing coherency, musical flow, and sheer ease of passing from one song to the next.

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Dame Janet Baker rarely slips up on her planning, and the program she is touring around the country (and Canada) this year could be one of her most refreshing, remarkable, and enjoyable. Dame Janet rarely slips into conventionality. In truth, some of her past programs have been perhaps too esoteric, so it was particularly welcome that so much of the music on the program was either familiar or richly tuneful. For instance, the opening quartet of songs included three Italian songs (Caldara, Pergolesi, Durante) and the beloved "Plaisir d'amour."

She grouped five lovely Mendelssohn songs and a quartet each of Faure and Vaughan Williams. And she dug up another of those marvelous cantatas, this time a Rossini opus about Joan of Arc. It was the grandest sort of musical feast, well-thought out, wonderfully ordered, richly satisfying.

Of course, it would all have been for naught if Dame Janet had been under par vocally. But such was not the case. From her first dramatic entrance in a magnificent gown she effortlessly looked the part of a major artist. And from first to last, she ravished her audience with melting, subdued tones, a tremendous variety of shadings and color, and generally superb diction.

Evidently Dame Janet was born with an irresistible tonal quality in her voice. But unlike those who coast on nature, she improved upon it, particularly in working out a way to transcend whatever limitations -- expressive and technical -- may have been inherent in the essentially light but genuine mezzo-soprano -- and how wonderful to find, in this age of switching categories, to find a mezzo who has chosen to remain one.

She can ride mighty storms of joy or anguish as if she had the power of a dramatic soprano, and she can fly through coloratura with credible style, even if neither come altogether naturally to her. But such is her artistry that she creates the illusion where it needs creating, and all the sleight of voice makes us think it comes to her by birthright.

The final ingredient to an impressive recital is the accompanist, and Martin Issep is as splendid and discreet as they come. He gives full, telling support without overpowering or intruding -- a very fine line he draws and consistently balances on, with nary a false or insecure step.

The frosting on a recital cake comes in form of encores, of which Dame Janet gave out with three -- "Who Is Sylvia?" "Oh Had I Jubal's Lyre," and an especially endearing one, "I Love My Voice."

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In all, it was a model concert, a striking sample of the particular joys of the lyrical arts, as put forth by its leading proponent today.

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