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The Art of the German Art-Song

Mezzo-soprano Janet Baker sings Brahms with a voice of deep purple velvet.
Mezzo-soprano Janet Baker sings Brahms with a voice of deep purple velvet.

Johannes Brahms remains known primarily for his symphonies, piano and chamber music, but his songwriting still gets overlooked today. With more than 200 songs to his credit, Brahms serves as an important link in the German art song ("lieder") tradition — stretching from Weber and Beethoven in the early 1800s to Schubert and Schumann, and on to Wolf and Mahler at the dawn of the 20th century.

So, with contemporary singers paying less attention to Brahms, it's a pleasure to turn the clock back to the 1960s to hear mezzo-soprano Janet Baker sing 24 of his songs, recorded for broadcast at the BBC. Baker has a voice of deep purple velvet, as well as intelligence and detail to the text that can make each song seem like a miniature opera. Or, in the case of Brahms' "Moonlight" (with text by Joseph von Eichendorf), it's more like a bedtime story, with Baker's supple mezzo sweeping through the window on a cool night's breeze.

After taking care to add special coloring to the repeated last lines of each verse, she scales her voice down to the barest thread of tone in the final line. The effect brings to mind a whisper in the middle of a moonlit night, but Baker's voice is fully supported and perfectly projected to reach to the back row of any concert hall. It's a trademark sound that has made Baker one the great lieder singers of modern times.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.