Oxford Harmonic Society put on its first peacetime performance of Messiah in November 1945. Isobel Baillie, who had been highly praised in the first 1943 performance (see our May post), did not take part, but she was to feature in nine further performances until 1955, cementing the association with the Society begun in 1932 (see our April post). She almost always got very good reviews:
The better known arias met with a deeply sympathetic response from the audience, especially “I know that my Redeemer liveth” beautifully given by Miss Baillie. (November 1949)
Isobel Baillie demonstrated once more how easily and delightfully she masters the soprano part. (December 1949)
Miss Isobel Baillie was at her best; the sound of her first note was one of the thrills of the afternoon, and rarely have the soprano arias been more beautifully sung. Not only is vocal quality exquisite, but the sense of line and, above all, the conviction with which she sings also hold one spell-bound. (November 1950)
The solo singing … was made more memorable by the voice of Isobel Baillie, which caught up the imagination and emotion of the hearers into the music in a manner not often known in Oxford. (November 1950)
Miss Isobel Baillie, however, still steals the thunder. The lovely tone of her voice, and above all, the personality behind her singing, still gives one the thrill of a great interpretative artist. When she sings of peace and beauty she creates them, and when she sings “I know that my Redeemer liveth” we all know it with absolute conviction. Although she sounded tired, this magical power was unimpaired. (1951)
As well as singing in the choir’s Messiahs, Isobel Baillie took part in several other concerts. In a concert in 1951 entitled ‘Vocal Music of the Seventeenth Century’, part of Oxford’s contribution to the Festival of Britain, her contribution included Purcell’s ‘The Blessed Virgin’s expostulation’ and two duets together with George Thewlis from Playford’s Select Ayres and Dialogues (1669): ‘I prithee keep my sheep for me’ by Nicholas Lanier and ‘Why sigh’st thou, shepherd’ by John Jenkins. (Baillie can be heard on YouTube singing the Purcell.)
In 1952, she sang in Mendelssohn’s Elijah (‘Miss Isobel Baillie took the soprano angel and sang the part of the widow very movingly’). And in 1954, she took part in a concert that included the Bruckner Requiem and Handel’s St Cecilia Ode. The reviewers were complimentary:
Isobel Baillie has rarely been heard in better voice in recent years than she was on Sunday.
In Handel’s “Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day” we heard from Miss Baillie a sustained top A of an astonishing clarity and purity which recalled some of the vocal felicities of the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
By mid 1955, Isobel Baillie was 60. There were very occasional hints in the reviews of some feeling of decline –‘although she sounded tired’ (1951) ‘very slight roughnesses’ (1952) – or an emphasis on artistry over voice. In her autobiography, Never Sing Louder than Lovely (1982), she writes that some people wondered that she had gone on singing so long:
I believed, however, that age has little to do with singing and provided my voice sounded (to my ears) ‘right’ then it remained all systems go. … Naturally I realised that my career had to follow a different path from that taken in the 1930s and 40s but the changes and modifications were very gradual, almost imperceptible, and took a surprising number of years, ten or so at least. … Perhaps the full realisation that I could not indefinitely go on singing professionally came when I received that letter from Dr Sumsion after the 1955 Three Choirs Festival in which he explained that he felt it was now time to let someone else ‘have a go’. Each withdrawal was undertaken after much thought and consideration. The uppermost thought as I faced each decision was the desire to take my leave while still at my best in a particular work …’
She began to turn more towards teaching, although she tells us that she sang in a performance of Elijah when she was eighty.
Baillie still got two good reviews in 1955, when she sang her last Messiah for the Society.
Once again Isobel Baillie astonished us with the exquisite purity of tone which the passage of years seems incapable of vanquishing from her limpidly beautiful soprano.
To comment on Miss Baillie’s performance seems almost presumptuous, for even she must have lost count of the number of times she has sung the soprano part. Her voice may have lost some of its choir-boy purity but her actual interpretation continues to grow in strength and conviction.
The reviewer in The Oxford Magazine was more critical:
Miss Isobel Baillie was in excellent form, despite a tendency to sing out of tune. Her roulades in “Rejoice greatly” were not always accurate, but her singing of “Come unto him” was extremely beautiful, her tone clear and pure, marred only occasionally by a slight rasp in the lower register.
An advertisement on the back of the Messiah programme for November 1956 for a mixed concert to be given on 12 May 1957 states that ‘Isobel Baillie will sing her favourite solos’. This concert was probably intended as the singer’s farewell to the Society (although in fact she was to sing once more in a concert in Purcell’s Masque from Dioclesian in February 1959).
She brought her own accompanist Wainwright Morgan and apparently only charged her expenses. Her solos were two arias from Bach cantatas sung in English, as she preferred: ‘My Heart Ever Faithful’ from Cantata 68 and ‘Flocks in pastures green abiding’ (i.e. ‘Sheep may safely graze’) from Cantata 208; Haydn’s ‘O how pleasing to the senses’ from The Seasons; ‘Rhapsody’ from Dies Natalis by Gerald Finzi and ‘The Wife of Bath’ from George Dyson’s The Canterbury Pilgrims. Together with George Thewlis, she sang two duets: a dialogue between a shepherd and shepherdess from Purcell’s Dioclesian and ‘I saw fair Cloris walk alone’ by George Hayden (more often listed as ‘As I saw fair Clora walk alone’). One can listen to Baillie singing the two Bach arias on YouTube; My Heart Ever Faithful; Flocks in pastures green and also the Dyson. Rather sadly, the concert was poorly attended, perhaps because the programme was something of a hotchpotch including short pieces for the piano soloist, Colin Sherratt, and for the choir.
Another great soprano, Heather Harper, was to take over the soprano role in Messiah from 1957 to 1963.
Our next post for July will take a look at some early performances by the choir in which professional orchestras from London were employed and explain how this came about.