If you are looking for some of the best performances of classical vocal music by Australian singers, then this product of ABC Classic FM’s latest popularity poll The Classic 100 – Voice 2016 is for you. Even though only two items were composed this century and only twenty in the last 100 years, this set of eight CDs offers ten hours of opera, oratorio, Lieder and symphonic settings of poetry by a reasonably wide range of composers employing diverse styles.
Perhaps predictably, Bach and Mozart reign supreme with around eight items apiece, if you count as one the complete first three movements of Mozart’s Requiem (voted at No. 6). Coming in at No. 3, Handel’s Messiah is also generously represented by seven excerpts. Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony has found itself at or near the top of the list in every eligible Classic 100 since ABC Classic FM began counting down: No. 3 in 2001 (Original); No. 2 in 2009 (Symphony) and No.1 in 2010 (Ten Years On) and this year (Voice). Selecting the performance of this inspirational work by the Australian World Orchestra in their triumphant inaugural concert could not have been more appropriate.
Figuring prominently on these discs are singers Sara Macliver, Sally-Anne Russell and Teddy Tahu Rhodes; ensembles such as the Sydney Philharmonia choirs and Cantillation; and conductor Anthony Walker. This would seem to be mainly due to the nature of the selections made by listeners, whose enthusiastic emphasis on particular sacred choral works possibly reflects their own performance experience either past or present. With the exception of Western Australia, all Symphony Australia orchestras are well represented.
Spanning recordings from 1985- 2016, the selections are mainly from ABC and Opera Australia archives. Given the generally high sound quality, it would be difficult to tell that many are recordings of live performances. The earliest is a live recording of “The Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland (of course!) and among the most recent is another live recording of the “Agnus Dei” from Britten’s War Requiem with tenor Andrew Staples and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The superb Nicole Car is another 2016 inclusion with a passionate “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka (No. 14). Other sopranos who have provided years of pleasure to opera lovers are also included. Operatic stars shine in the form of Joan Carden as La Traviata and Yvonne Kenny as Cleopatra. In addition to Sara Macliver, Jane Sheldon sings with pure bell-like accuracy on a number of tracks, including the enduring favourite, Allegri’s Miserere. Those who miss hearing Eliza’s Aria (No. 28) from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans heralding Phillip Adams’ “Late Night Live” can now play the whole aria to their hearts’ content.
In addition to Australian performers there is a sprinkling of international artists, most notably Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore in a song from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin (No. 94). The iconic version of “In the depths of the temple” (No. 2) that was broadcast during the countdown with Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill has been replaced with David Hobson and Rhodes, who more than hold their own.
One of the most gratifying aspects of this compilation is the extended length of some items. Apart from the Mozart and Handel excerpts, soprano Erin Wall and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis perform all four of Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (No. 8), a happy commemoration of the MSO’s recent European tour.
But here is a downside to a compilation such as this. Since the sequencing of the items is the result of listeners’ choices, there is bound to be the odd jarring segue. Amongst the vocal jewels is a deeply spiritual performance of the fourth movement from Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. With the SSO conducted by Stuart Challender and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell in top form, it is as poignant and moving an interpretation as you could ever hope to experience. Time hangs suspended. Unless you are quick on the stop button the moment could well have been destroyed by what follows. Fortunately, the embracing warmth of Sally-Anne Russell’s “Softly awakes my heart” makes the transition to unrelated music remarkably acceptable. Less satisfactory are the Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs that follow Yvonne Kenny’s beautifully ornamented “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo and Beverly Sills’ heartfelt “Marietta’s Song” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.
With composers ranging from Hildegard von Bingen to Nigel Westlake and a list of performers constituting almost a Who’s Who of those we have cherished over the years, riches abound. Elizabeth Connell singing the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, and Cantillation with a celestial, resonant Spem in alium and a rousing “Jerusalem” figure among them. Many listeners will be inspired to purchase the complete recordings of excerpts and other recordings by the featured composers and artists.
Not only are these discs an ideal companion in terms of length and interest for a car trip between Melbourne and Sydney, they are guaranteed to deflect road rage on city streets as well. With Volume 1 in the car and Volume 2 in the kitchen, I can also heartily recommend them as a way to make even the most thankless task pleasurable. Just keep an eye on the speedometer when Teddy Tahu Rhodes unleashes the thrilling bravura of his “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?”