The Great Jamie Barton in Hi-Rez

"Great" is not an adjective to be invoked lightly. But once you hear mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton hold forth on her debut solo album, All Who Wander (Delos)—available in 24/96 from HDTracks, which features songs by Mahler, Sibelius, and Dvorák, you will harbor no doubt that she is one of the great vocal artists of our era.

For those new to her singing, Barton is a Georgia-born, Houston Grand Opera Studio grad whose win at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007—the year she turned 26—was followed by snaring both the Main and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, and 2015 Richard Tucker Award. But even had she not received all those awards, there is no question that Barton's would be considered one of the great classical voices of all time. I also have little doubt that were she slender rather than large-bodied, she would have been signed by a major label years ago, and already have several solo recordings and opera sets to her credit. (For more on Barton, you may wish to read my interview with her for Seattle Times.)

Barton's grand and rich voice is perhaps as big as Flagstad's, Farrell, and Nilsson's, with tone as beautiful and unforced as the first two singers'. Its compass extends from the bottom of the mezzo range to an easy, room-shaking high C. But as easily as Barton can envelop you with sound, she can also grab you by the gut, and propel you deep into the emotional heart of music's great mysteries.

It is the emotional depth of Barton's artistry that sets her apart from other singers blessed with exceptional voices. She may not have as wide an emotional range as Cecilia Bartoli, whose outsized personality expands far beyond the reach of her modestly-scaled instrument to encompass comedy and tragedy with equal flair. But when Barton tackles repertoire that suits her emotional strengths, as do both Mahler's five Rückert Lieder (songs) and the six Sibelius songs on All Who Wander, she has the power to render you breathless and at her mercy. For proof, turn up the volume, and spend 2:12 listening to the final track on her CD, Sibelius's "Var det en dröm?" (Did I Just Dream?). I expect that you, too, will marvel at how, as Barton expands her voice to huge proportions, her sound and heart also expand to encompass every emotion of a woman lost in memories of a great, lost love.

Barton's Rückert Lieder, superbly accompanied by pianist Brian Zeger, are up there with the best, which to me means three orchestral versions: the three songs recorded by contralto Kathleen Ferrier and Bruno Walter, and the five-song sets from mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Karl Böhm. Barton's opening song, "Ich atmet'einen linden Duft" (I breathed a gentle fragrance) is beautifully done, with the voice pared down to essential sweetness on the word "linden." In both this song and "Liebst du um Schönheit" (If you love for beauty), her tone is tender, and the high notes gorgeous. In the latter, Barton takes her time for extra emotional impact, and luxuriates in the brilliance of her sound in the final two lines.

By contrast, "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!" (Do not look into my songs!) receives faster and lighter treatment. This makes us all the more receptive to the big wallop of "Un Mitternacht" (At midnight), where Barton occasionally employs an expressive downward portamento that has sadly grown out of fashion in our more matter-of-fact era. (Two very different sopranos, Lotte Lehmann and Maggie Teyte, both of whom were born in 1888, used downward portamento to maximum advantage.) As Barton opens her voice to cavernous proportions, the hollow emptiness of her tone speaks volumes. Zeger is right with her on every note, sounding positively symphonic as he opens the piano to enormous proportions

The final Rückert song, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I am lost to the world), allows Barton to inject inner warmth into the middle of abject emptiness. The effect is marvelous, with the sadness of the song predominating over the sense of peace that it proclaims. Such an approach is valid, and points to the state of mind of the composer, who was tortured by marital infidelity, anti-semitism, and a host of internal demons that included premonitions of death.

Tackling three less familiar songs by Mahler, Barton luxuriates in the melody of "Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen" (I walked joyfully through the green wood), and produces high notes of fetching sweetness. In "Erinnerung" (Recollection), her awareness of when to use the bright edge of her voice to project her voice, and when to pull back and eliminate the edge, is supreme.

To these ears, Dvorák's four Gypsy Songs would benefit most from a lighter and more carefree voice that could dance, gypsy-like, through the melodies. Nonetheless, Barton's rendition of the most familiar and inward of the lot, "Kdyz mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat ucívala" (When my old mother taught me singing), is simply gorgeous.

She also pulls out all the stops for her Sibelius set. Barton may sound too tragic for "Marssnön" (March Snow), but the other songs are perfection. Vocal aficionados will have a ball comparing her renditions to the very different versions by tenor Jussi Björling, contralto Marian Anderson, soprano Barbara Bonney, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter (for starters). I doubt you'll find a more dramatic "Säv, säv, susa" (Rushes, rushes, murmur), or feel more pain in "Flickan kom ifrån sinälsklings mote" (The Girl Returned from Meeting her Lover) than Barton provides. All told, a most brilliant debut recital from an artist already familiar with many of the world's great stages, including New York's Met.

pbarach's picture

Saw her sing in Britten's Spring Symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra--a fine performance by everyone, but Barton stood out.

JimAustin's picture

Saw her two Saturdays ago, with Placido Domingo, as Fenena in Nabucco, from great seats. Very silly opera, lots of fun. Barton was very good.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Definitely a flawed opera, but fabulous if the Abigaille can truly tear through the music, which very few sopranos can. (Check out Scotto's early digital performance, or the Callas aria recording.) I don't think it's Jamie's best role, but that's because it's so hard to be truly sympathetic to a character born of such a plot.

Serge Sirota's picture

«Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix» performance.

dalethorn's picture

I finally got this, from HDTracks. Trying to imagine recording this on tape with VU-meters. The dynamics are thrilling.