Strauss melbourne MSO0001

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Ariettes oubliées (1887, orch. Brett Dean, 2015)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder (1948)
Siobhan Stagg (soprano)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Jaime Martin
rec. live, 24-25 February 2023 (Strauss), 2-3 March 2023 (Debussy), Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, Australia
Texts & English translations included
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra MSO0001 SACD [39]

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is no stranger to recording. They have made a number of discs for both the ABC Classics and Chandos labels. In particular, during the time that the late Sir Andrew Davis was its Chief Conductor (2013 – 2019), the orchestra featured on discs of music by Eugene Goossens, Charles Ives and Richard Strauss, which were admired by various MusicWeb colleagues. I was impressed by two Berlioz recordings they made together (review ~ review). Nor was Sir Andrew the only conductor with whom the MSO has recorded. This, then, is an orchestra with a strong pedigree. Now, under their current Chief Conductor (since 2022), Jaime Martin, they’ve launched a new venture, becoming the latest orchestra to issue own-label recordings. As its catalogue number suggests, this is the first release on their new label.

Besides showcasing the Melbourne Symphony, this disc gives prominence to the Australian soprano, Siobhan Stagg. The work of another Australian musician, the violist and composer Brett Dean, is celebrated through the inclusion of his orchestrations of a set of Debussy songs.

Ariettes oubliées is a cycle of six settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, which Debussy composed in 1886-87. Brett Dean orchestrated the songs for Magdalena Kožená and Simon Rattle. She recorded Dean’s versions in 2017, with Robin Ticciati conducting; I’ve not heard that disc but I see that the orchestrations were warmly welcomed by two of my colleagues (review). Though I’d not heard these orchestrations before, I found Dean’s work convincing in every respect. It seems to me that he expertly evokes an authentic Debussyan sound, especially in the way he deploys the woodwind instruments and in his string writing; time and again, he seems to find what I might term the couleur juste. I’m sure Brett Dean played a number of Debussy’s orchestral works during his career as an orchestral violist and I suspect his own experience of those scores has been of great assistance to him.

Dean’s feeling for Debussyan sound is immediately apparent in the first song, ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’; strings and woodwind create a properly languorous ambience. Siobhan Stagg sings the song with feeling. At the risk of making an obvious point, the orchestral canvass means that she, rightly. sings these songs in a more outgoing way than would have been the case had she been performing just with piano in a recital venue. In the second song, ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur’ the orchestration again sounds authentic. Stagg brings out the sadness in the song, nowhere more so than in the way she delivers the line ‘Ce deuil est sans raison’ (This grief is without reason). Dean’s scoring is suitably shadowy in the third song, ‘L’ombre des arbres’. Here, once again, Ms Stagg is very expressive. My only reservation is that very occasionally here, and elsewhere in the cycle, I wasn’t entirely convinced by her French pronunciation (though I note from her biography that she has performed some French operatic roles, including Mélisande). Both singer and orchestra bring plenty of vitality to the fourth song, ‘Chevaux de Bois’; in the last stanza of this song Stagg spins a wonderful, long vocal line. I love the delicate orchestral colourings that Brett Dean conjures up in the penultimate song, ‘Green’. The end of this song is languorously delivered by Ms Stagg and by the orchestra; it’s captivating. The cycle ends with ‘Spleen’. Siobhan Stagg conveys the aching regret in this song and Dean provides Pelléas-like orchestral colourings.

I found much to admire in Siobhan Stagg’s account of these exquisite songs. As for Brett Dean’s orchestrations, I think they are skilful, idiomatic and convincing in every respect; his scorings enhance the songs and add a new dimension to them without ever distracting me from the vocal line.

There is, to the best of my knowledge, only one other recording of Ariettes oubliées in their orchestral guise. When it comes to the Vier letzte Lieder, however, Siobhan Stagg comes up against formidable competition. She has Straussian credentials of her own, though: according to her biography, she has appeared as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier in a number of leading opera houses and another of her roles is Najade in Ariadne auf Naxos. 

In ‘Frühling’ Ms Stagg’s voice soars attractively. She sings with silvery tone, though here and elsewhere I didn’t hear the creamy tone which I’d ideally like. Jaime Martin keeps the orchestral accompaniment light, which is exactly what the song needs. ‘September’ is well done by both singer and orchestra, culminating in a lovely account of the orchestral postlude in which the golden tone of the horn player (Andrew Young) is a special delight. The opening of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ is excellent: Siobhan Stagg’s singing is lovely and she’s beautifully partnered by the orchestra. The wonderful violin solo which acts as the bridge between the second and third stanzas of the poem is tenderly played by the MSO Concertmaster, Dale Barltrop, after which Stagg invests the final stanza with great feeling. The best is saved for last. Jaime Martin launches ‘Im Abendrot’ at what seems to me to be an ideal pace, one which allows the music all the necessary space yet at the same time doesn’t sacrifice momentum. Ms Stagg puts everything into her singing; she’s already shown plentiful engagement with text and music in the preceding three songs, but here I think she’s particularly eloquent. Just as one small example, in the third stanza of the poem comes the line ‘Dass wir uns nicht verirren’ (lest we should go astray): Stagg underlines the word ‘nicht’ and then rolls the letter ‘r’ in the following word; the effect is not over-emphasised but it’s noticeable and shows understanding not just of the line itself but also of the line in the context of the stanza as a whole. The MSO’s playing is distinguished throughout the song and nowhere more so than in the extended postlude.

In these four wonderful songs, my personal, subjective pantheon of great sopranos includes (in alphabetical order): Soile Isokoski; Sena Jurinac; Kiri Te Kanawa; Jessye Norman (for sheer vocal opulence, though the speeds are on the lavish side); and the treasurable Lucia Popp. I don’t think Siobhan Stagg’s performance surpasses the very best interpreters but she gives an account of the songs which I enjoyed and she benefits from excellent support from Jaime Martin and the Melbourne Symphony.

The recorded sound is very good, presenting the singer in a very good balance with the orchestra: I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD. The playing time is short but this is reflected in the price: at the time of writing (May 2024) the disc is selling for around £9 in the UK.

This is an auspicious launch for the Melbourne Symphony’s own label. I look forward to further releases.

John Quinn

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