Dame Nellie Melba: The First Recordings ABC 476 3556

Melba (1861-1931) was Australia’s first international superstar of opera, her voice and charisma captivating audiences, royalty and the finest composers of the age. She had studied scores personally with Saint-Saens, Gounod, Massenet, Delibes, Verdi and Puccini.

Although earlier recordings (1890’s) had been made previous to this set of 1904, Melba hated the result and had them destroyed. But these surviving recordings (which convinced Melba to record further) were from the flat-disc  technology and had replaced the cylinder type.

In 1904, Melba who was 42, was in her prime performing years. These subsequently re-discovered recordings which have survived were taken from the original metal masters and released for the first time on CD. They are complete with hisses and crackles, and even someone speaking in the background at times.  Melba had insisted she record at her home in London, at 30 Great Cumberland Place and not at some ‘laboratory’.

As a soprano of renown, Melba as can be heard here on these recordings had a remarkable voice with great facility and intonation. The coloratura work is as good as most singers today who grace the operatic stage.  The accompanist, Landon Ronald (later Sir Landon) was significant in his accurate and sympathetic  support of Melba on piano.

There are 17 tracks here, including the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti), Caro nome from Rigoletto (Verdi), Sempre libera from La traviata (Verdi), Porgi, amor from The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart), along with some gems which one can imagine were sung at her hundreds of concerts throughout Europe and Australia, such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Comin’ thro’ the Rye.

This CD is accompanied by detailed, scholarly and highly readable liner notes, describing the fascinating history of these recordings and offering unique insights into Melba’s life and work. As well, there is even a short history of the varying accepted tuning regulations between Europe and England (and her then Empire) and the resultant difficulties some singers had from time to time in reaching some upper notes. In addition, there are no less than 25 monographs or journal articles cited in the select bibliography.

Opera’s Greatest Choruses Opera Queensland Chorus, The Queensland Orchestra, Johannes Fritzsch (conductor) ABC 476 3489

Whilst opera in this country seems to be centred in Sydney, it is pleasing to see other professional companies recognised, such as Opera Queensland. Having enjoyed many productions by this company in Brisbane, I know that its chorus has strength of musical endeavour and supports the action on stage in striking fashion. Led by James Christiansen for many years and now under the leadership of Richard Lewis, Narelle French and Jilianne Stoll, the chorus here presents twelve of its best (mostly 19th century opera).

Four choruses from Verdi were amongst the highlights. The Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore had verve, whilst the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco was buoyantly sung; The Chorus of the Scottish Refugees from Macbeth was ominous and pleading in quality, and the Triumphal March from Aida is always a spectacular sing.

Puccini’s Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly and Turn the Grindstone from Turandot was exciting, energetic and dramatic, as was Leoncavallo’s Bell Chorus from Pagliacci.

Although the sopranos in the opening semi-chorus were flat in the Easter Hymn from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, the remaining chorus was rhythmic and included a beautiful solo from Dominique Fegan.

There was warmth in the men’s voices in the Prisoners’ Chorus from Fidelio by Beethoven, a lovely blend in the slow moving Chorus of the Priests from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and well shaped phrases and fine diction in Wagner’s Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin.  Fittingly, this disc finishes with the stirring Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky

The direction from Johannes Fritzsch was in conducting the chorus and The Queensland Orchestra was commanding and achieved the disciplined choral work necessary of these great operatic excerpts.

Music of Betty Beath, Wirr 024

This is a compilation of some of the finest work by the Brisbane based composer, Betty Beath featuring superb performers such as sopranos Margaret Schindler, Susan Lorette Dunn and Janet Delpratt, violist Patricia Pollett, pianists Colin Spiers and the composer, along with the Camerata of St John’s (directed by Brendan Joyce), the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Richard Mills) This stella lineup of artists is testament to the regard of this composer.

The six movements of Towards the Psalms, shows Beath as a composer of beautiful song, who handles the voice in an exceptionally lyrical way. Margaret Schindler’s high register is floated well and also reveals a richness in the lowest range.

In This Garden, written in 1973 is a cycle of five songs. The dark and almost melancholic qualities in the first two songs are well portrayed by Susan Lorette Dunn. The third, Spider, changes direction with more agile vocal lines, whilst Snail (the fourth) has a wide range and finally Sparrow is filled with wit and quirky turns of phrase.

The Javanese influenced Nawang Wulan, Guardian of Earth and Rice has hints of whole tone scale in the piano. Its sentiment of capture and release is evocatively sung in the native language. Originally a song cycle for orchestra and voice, Genesis has been re-worked for voice and piano, and whilst sung in English, is a fine appropriation in the western idiom telling the story of a Javavese puppet maker.

The composer/pianist, who has recorded some of the vocal accompaniments, shines in her own solos inEncounters and Merindu Bali; the first written as a tribute to the memory of Miriam Hyde, and the second is a memorial to the victims of the Bali bombing of 2002.

Lament for Kosova, played by the Camerata of St John’s, is an adagio for strings which should be on every fine chamber orchestra’s concert repertoire. It is full-bodied and highly emotive music.

The three movement From a Quiet Place, for viola and piano is a work in which the composer has created elements of “simplicity, line and tone.” The warmth of Spiers’s piano is matched with the robust and dynamic performance from Pollett on viola. The second movement even contains mystical Nepalese singing bowls.

The impressive voice of Janet Delpratt is full of drama in the five movement River Songs, as the listener is taken on a meandering journey (much like the Brisbane River itself), with stunning orchestral effects.

This recording was a revelation of music which is genuine, accessible and highly imaginative. It should be on repertoire lists for more students, teachers and especially professional performers. I highly recommend this as a fine example of Australian music which you will enjoy and revisit time and again.