Dame Janet Baker

léonie sonning music prize 1979

The British mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of 100,000 Danish kroner at a concert on 24 April 1979 at the Odd Fellow Palace in Copenhagen. The first half of the concert was broadcast live on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s P1 radio channel.


The prize was presented by Børge Friis, the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation’s chairman. The official citation for the prize read:

‘The Léonie Sonning Music Prize is hereby awarded to Dame Janet Baker in recognition of her human, emotional and personal interpretation of the jewels of the lieder tradition. Dame Janet Baker’s tireless efforts in Denmark, and in the rest of the world, have helped preserve, enliven and renew the tradition of art song.’


The programme

Antonio Caldara Selve amiche
Martini il Tedesco Plaisir d’amour
G. Battista Pergolesi Ogni pena
Alessandro Scarlatti Spesso vibra per suo gioco
Guilio Caccini Amarilli mia bella
Francesco Durante Danza, Danza, fanciulla gentile
F. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Scheidend, Neue Liebe, Frage, Auf Flügeln des, Gesanges, Ich hör ein Vöglein, Nachtlied, Hexenlied
Frederick Delius Young Venevil
The Bird’s Story
Twilight Fancies
Love’s Philosophy
Gabriel Fauré Rencontre; Toujours – Adieu
Claude Debussy Mandoline – Air de Lia

Dame Janet Baker, song
Geoffrey Parsons, grand piano

Janet Baker in Denmark

Dame Janet Baker first performed as a soloist in Denmark when she was just 28 years old, at a 1961 performance of Bach’s St John Passion with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mogens Wöldike. In March 1968 she was a soloist in Schöenberg’s Gurrelieder with the orchestra, conducted by János Ferencsik, and in 1972 returned for Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. She performed two lieder concerts in Denmark, and the year before the prize concert, she sang Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody and Britten’s cantata Phaedra with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.

On the occasion of the prize concert, Baker was interviewed in Berlingske Tidende by Else Cornelius, and commented: ‘You are never blown away when you meet with expressions of gratitude and respect. Whether it’s one person standing and saying thank you at the entrance of the stage or a committee giving you an award. Both are demonstrations of love that one is grateful to receive. But when that demonstration comes from another country, it means something completely different.’

The day after the prize concert, on 25 April, Baker was the soloist at a concert at the Radio House Concert Hall. She sang Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen as well as Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the male voices of the Radio Choir, conducted by János Ferencsik. The concert was televised the following day. Politiken’s music critic, the composer Fleming Weis, wrote: ‘in the most sublime way, Janet Baker narrated the course of tragedy, human in her empathy and breathtaking in her vocal beauty, in which she shaped and adorned each melodic stanza. She has a superb range of expressions, which contain both the dark colours of the alto and the luminous height of the soprano. Mahler’s music for his own poetry can hardly be sung more beautifully. […] It was one of the great evenings, that will long be remembered.’ Baker returned to Denmark several times in the 1980s, including in 1988 when she sang Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été with the Collegium Musicum, conducted by Michael Schønwandt.

The daily press wrote, among other things:

For many years now Janet Baker has thrilled a large audience with her beautiful vocal artistry, which is based on equal parts mastery of the voice and personal empathy with the text that forms the basis of the music she sings. At her concert at the Odd Fellow Palace on the occasion of the presentation of the Sonning Prize, she fully demonstrated that her mezzo is still a perfect tool for expressing a wide range of shifting states of mind.

(Jurij Moskvitin, Politiken, 26 April 1979)

You won’t find the art of singing manifested more perfectly than in Janet Baker. […] With virtuosity, she accounted for every twist and turn in the early Italian arias and showed a rare capacity for sonority and expression in the songs by Mendelssohn, Delius, Fauré and Debussy, as if each country and each composer were her specialty. Geoffrey Parsons was her eminently sensitive and compassionate partner at the piano.

(Thomas Viggo Pedersen, Kristeligt Dagblad, 28 April 1979)

It opened with a representative selection of Italian music. […] Small immersive mood images in virtuoso treatment characterized by a superior technique at all levels. Janet Baker continued with 6 songs by Mendelssohn, interpreting them as if they were by Schumann. Mendelssohn’s almost ballad-like song style was for moments unable to carry the pervasive interpretations, but at the same time the songs were enriched with a great meaning which was only a gain. Baker’s incomparable phrasing technique and distinguished mastery of vibrato triumphed here.

(Bo Holten, Weekendavisen, 27 April 1979)




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