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TV review: Janet Baker: In her own words, Looking for Rembrandt, and How to See a Black Hole

18 April 2019


Detail of “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, 1633 by Rembrandt

Detail of “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, 1633 by Rembrandt

AT LEAST she still sings hymns. You would not have to be enthralled by classical music and the remarkable people who perform it to find Janet Baker: In her own words (BBC4, Palm Sunday) the most moving and profoundly evocative programme of the week, worthily responding in secular fashion to the otherwise-ignored season of Passiontide.

Although it was a deeply personal account of our greatest singer, it was really a universal 90-minute meditation on the themes of loss and bidding farewell; for the big story at the heart of Dame Janet’s career is why she stopped performing far earlier than most great singers (and far earlier than most second-rate singers), leaving first the operatic stage and then the recital platform while still, as far as anyone could tell, at the height of her powers.

She spoke about the terrible experience of her brother’s dying when she was ten — the black shadow over the family that was never spoken about, never openly shared — and how she had thereafter had to carry the weight of her mother’s telling her “Now you are all that I’ve got,” and how this was a source of the raw emotional intensity of her art.

She spoke about the demands made of a serious artist: the steely, adamant determination required, contrasting with the utter vulnerability; stripping yourself naked before a houseful of strangers to fully perform and communicate the truth of great music. We saw the absolute commitment, the sheer hard work required to perform at her level — and caught a glimpse of the reasons why, when she sensed that she was beginning two fail to reach her personal standard, she simply retired.

Curiously, what moved me most in the first of a three-part documentary about an even greater artist was a series of entries in a parish register. Looking for Rembrandt (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) seems a rather odd compilation: sumptuous and luscious, as befits its subject, but including curious elements. Was anything gained by hearing from Toby Young, a man who has published a strip-cartoon life of the artist? Mr Young speaks in the person of Rembrandt — but who has written the script? Is it reliable? There is no questioning the bitter finality of the register entries recording the deaths, first, of their three children, and then of Saskia herself.

How to See a Black Hole: The universe’s greatest mystery (BBC4, Wednesday of last week) may have presented the week’s most important subject matter. We non-scientists were privileged to catch something of the utter single-minded dedication and attention to detail, and the rigorous discipline needed (the same as for opera singers) to push the boundaries of cosmological knowledge.

Without black holes there would be no galaxies; so has God decreed that existence requires at its heart all-consuming voids?

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