Dalton Baldwin, an eminence among accompanists, dies at 87

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Dalton Baldwin, an eminence among accompanists, dies at 87
Writing about a 1968 recording of songs by Francois Poulenc, featuring Souzay and Baldwin, the Times critic Allen Hughes observed that “the two performers work together so superbly that their interpretations are almost inseparable into individual elements.”

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Dalton Baldwin, an American pianist and recording artist who was acclaimed for nearly six decades as a recital accompanist to major singers, including Elly Ameling, Jessye Norman and especially the French baritone Gérard Souzay, died on Dec. 12 in Kunming, in the Yunnan province of China. He was 87.

His death, a week before his 88th birthday, was announced by Ben Turman, the vice consul of the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. Baldwin had recently completed three weeks of performances and coaching sessions with students in Japan and was returning from a short trip to Myanmar to visit Buddhist temples when he collapsed on a flight to Tokyo. The plane made an emergency landing in Kunming, where he was taken to a hospital and died.

He had performed on five continents and made more than 100 recordings over his career.

Although Baldwin was an eminence among accompanists, he was not fond of that word. Like many of his colleagues, he preferred to be called simply a pianist.

Critics affirmed that he was no mere accompanist. While consistently praising the refinement, sensitivity and technical command of his playing, they routinely described him as an equal partner to the singers he performed with.

In a review of a 1978 recital by Ameling at Alice Tully Hall, John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote that Baldwin “was worthy of a review all his own.” This was “piano playing of a lyrical and dramatic sympathy and a rhythmic energy that superbly partnered the singer,” Rockwell concluded.

Writing about a 1968 recording of songs by Francois Poulenc, featuring Souzay and Baldwin, the Times critic Allen Hughes observed that “the two performers work together so superbly that their interpretations are almost inseparable into individual elements.”

Baldwin was 22 when he met and first worked with Souzay, who was 13 years older and already an admired interpreter of song. Their professional relationship grew into a personal one, though they remained discrete about it; they built a home together in Antibes, on the Riviera, where Souzay died in 2004 at 85.

The important singers with whom Baldwin partnered on concert tours inevitably attracted more attention than he did, as he wryly noted in a 1983 interview with The Times. Speaking of a recital at the Salzburg Festival with Ameling, Baldwin said that his name was as large as hers on the poster, which gave him “a good feeling” — though, he added, “of course, I didn’t get anything like her fee.”

“Accompanists are underrated in every respect — financially, acclaim,” he said. Once, he said, a critic even referred to him in a review as someone else: Gerald Moore, the distinguished British accompanist.

In another Times article, from 1996, Baldwin was quoted as explaining that being an accompanist required not just musical talent but also a flair for ad hoc psychiatry, because “singers are such vulnerable people.” Baldwin clearly handled this element of the relationship sensitivity; some of the major singers of his era were tenaciously loyal to him.

Dalton Baldwin was born on Dec. 19, 1931, in Summit, New Jersey, to Dalton Graf Baldwin, who worked in the insurance business, and Helen (Cahill) Baldwin. He is survived by a sister, Martha Baldwin Nelson. Another sister, Anne Baldwin Kurtosi, died before him.

Baldwin was drawn to music early. As a high school student, he attended a recital in Morristown, New Jersey, by the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier that proved pivotal.

“You know immediately when a singer has a personal message,” he said in the 1996 interview. Ferrier “had lovely rosy cheeks and an enchanting way, and there again was a message, introducing me to the world of song.”

After studying at the Juilliard School, he attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he received a bachelor of music degree. In Paris he studied with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, began his association with Souzay and was coached by several composers, including Poulenc and Frank Martin.

Baldwin is best known for his performances and recordings of French art songs. His extensive discography includes the complete songs of Poulenc, Debussy, Faure and Ravel. He also won high praise for his performances of Schubert and Schumann. And he introduced a number of new works, including, with Souzay, the 1969 premiere in Washington of Ned Rorem’s “War Scenes,” a cycle of five songs with texts from Walt Whitman’s “Specimen Days,” dedicated by the composer to “those who died in Vietnam, both sides.”

The illustrious singers he worked with also included Marilyn Horne, Nicolai Gedda, Jennie Tourel, Frederica von Stade and José van Dam. He began his long association with Ameling in 1970 and, a few years later, began working with Jessye Norman (who died in September).

Baldwin was a teacher and coach to young pianists and singers and regularly gave master classes at the Salzburg Mozarteum, the national conservatories of Paris and Madrid, a summer academy in Nice and elsewhere. In recent years he taught at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey, and had a home near the campus.

Though he also performed with leading instrumentalists like the violinist Henryk Szeryng and the cellist Pierre Fournier, Baldwin said he liked working with singers best.

“I worship the human voice,” he said in 1996. “There’s nothing like singing; it’s a romance when you share the music and the poem. The voice is God’s instrument. I want them to enjoy music making. That’s what it should be about: la joie.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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