by Walter Simmons
ARGENTO: From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Martin Isepp, piano. D’NOTE DND-1019 [ADD]; 71:54. Produced by Bruce Carlson, Michael Kelly, John Michel, and Russ Borud.
WOLF: Nun wandre Maria; Die ihr schwebet; Ach des Knaben Augen; Herr, was trägt der Boden hier. FAURÉ: Après un rêve; Le secret. DUPARC: Le Manoir de Rosemonde; Phidylé. DEBUSSY: Mandoline; Air de Lia.
In less than twenty-five years, Dominick Argento’s Pulitzer Prize-winning settings of excerpts From the Diary of Virginia Woolf have become a real classic, by now recorded at least four times. The composer himself has written, “Not a week goes by that I do not receive a letter from a singer or a listener saying how moved they were by a performance of the Virginia Woolf Diary.” Reviewing one of its recordings a couple of years ago, I wrote, “Unfortunately [the work] was never committed to disk by Janet Baker, who premiered it and for whom it was written in 1974.” This new release, taken from a 1975 broadcast of what seems to be the premiere performance (although this is nowhere stated on the package), is thus self-recommending to all admirers of From the Diary …, not to mention the singer’s legions of fans, while summarily pre-empting all previous recordings. I could easily end this review here, but for the many listeners who have yet to discover the work and deserve more description as means of introduction.
Not so much a “song cycle” as a group of interior monologues set to music, From the Diary … is a work of extraordinary freshness, sensitivity, intelligence, and originality, with a rarefied lyricism that weaves in and out of tonal focus through sudden shifts of mood and perspective that parallel the shifting levels of reference in the diary entries, from description and reminiscence to reflection and commentary. The texts are drawn from the diary entries that Virginia Woolf made over the course of more than twenty years, from 1919 through her last entry in 1941, on the day of her suicide. The settings are not, perhaps, as obviously or immediately gratifying as songs by Samuel Barber, for example, who sought to capture and express the emotions of the lyric poetry he chose to set. Argento, on the other hand, seems to be drawn less to this type of poetry than to more unconventional media of psychological reflection, such as diaries, letters, and a mock lecture, for example, setting such texts from a perspective other than the purely subjective, so as to permit further dimensions from which to comment or reflect. This approach is especially successful in From the Diary …., although the work may at first seem to promise more than it delivers. Repeated listening with texts in hand, however, gradually yields an ever-deepening richness of meaning and sense of profound beauty. Listen, for example, to “Parents”–perhaps the easiest to penetrate of the eight selections. At first it seems merely “pretty;” soon, however, the beauty of its insight becomes heartbreaking.
Janet Baker brings to this challenging music — as she does to the Wolf, Fauré, Duparc, and Debussy songs — the intelligence, emotional sensitivity, vocal artistry, and indefinable yet unique personality that have marked her renditions of an enormous range of music over the course of many years. This new release is a must for all connoisseurs of twentieth-century vocal music, as well as for repertoire-sensitive vocal buffs in general.