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Claude Debussy: Ariettes oubliées, L. 60 (orch. Brett Dean)
Richard Strauss: Four last songs, TrV 296

Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Jaime Martin (conductor)
Recording: Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, Australia (February-March 2023) – 39’
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra MSO0001 – Booklet in English

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has recently entered into a production and distribution partnership with LSO Live (London Symphony Orchestra) to present their debut recording, “Debussy & Strauss”, exploring life, love and approaching death, on the new MSO label. Drawn from a series of concerts at Hamer Hall in Melbourne during February and March 2023, this recording features a gloriously lush full orchestra under the baton of Chief Conductor Jaime Martin and the superb voice of Australia soprano Siobhan Stagg who was Artist in Residence with the MSO during that year.

Having taken the reins at the MSO in 2022, Maestro Martin brings a wealth of experience from the concert platforms of Ireland, Spain, USA, UK and others as well as an extensive familiarity with recording as shown in his substantial discography. Siobhan Stagg is a locally born and educated soprano who has developed an impressive career in the opera houses and on the concert stages of Europe. She hails from Mildura, a regional city in the state of Victoria. Ms. Stagg graduated from the University of Melbourne (whose famous Melba Conservatorium is named for Australia’s first international opera star Dame Nellie Melba) before launching her career as a Young Artist at Salzburg and then at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

This recording, when released late in May 2024, will extend the distribution of MSO performances internationally and promises to bring extensive international exposure to the work of this sumptuous ensemble.

The CD is brief at only 39 minutes, but it is 39 minutes of exquisitely crafted and meticulously nuanced performance from both orchestra and soloist. The recording is evenly balanced, creating a depth of presence while maintaining audience engagement in the live performances. Melbourne’s Hamer Hall boasts an accurate and much praised acoustics, and this adds immediacy to the recording, an attribute not universally found in performance spaces. There is overall warmth to the recording; the technicians having created a sense of being present amid the performers. It is a lovely debut release.

The Debussy song cycle which opens the recording, Ariettes oubliées (“Forgotten songs”), contains six parts based on poems by Paul Verlaine. Most of the pieces were composed in Rome during 1886 when Debussy was in residence after winning the 1884 Prix de Rome. This version of the cycle was orchestrated in 2015 by Australian composer Brett Dean. The six songs vary widely in thematic content and mood, ranging from frivolous excitement to languorous contentment; from gloom and sadness to adolescent romance. The accompanying booklet ponders the possibility that the languor of the first song might reflect the mood of the young Debussy lingering in his lover’s bedroom. Siobhan Stagg captures the mood with an ease and continuity of line. The amplitude of her voice is held in check for much of the cycle, Debussy allowing only the occasional fluctuation of intensity and strength. In later songs of this cycle, we will hear her rise to a glistening upper register with grace and precision, juxtaposing her rich chest notes and elongated vocal lines to produce the melancholic yearning for lost love of the final song. This is a fascinating performance of a little known cycle. The MSO is ravishingly rich of tone, and Maestro Martin emphasizes minute detail in the arrangement and orchestration.

More widely known is the Richard Strauss cycle, Ver letzte Lieder (“Four last songs”), written in 1948. The lavish orchestration and exquisite melodic lines are testament to Strauss’ deeply imbedded understanding of the human voice, and, in particular, the voices of women. Ravishing, meltingly liquid highs and dark, visceral lows are brought wonderfully to life by the MSO. Ms. Stagg’s voice is perfect for this repertoire. Gently persuasive, liltingly delicate and able to soar to powerful, crystalline highs, she breathes youthful presence into these works. Each of the four songs has its own beauty of execution but the second song, “September” and the fourth song “Im Abendrot”, are particularly finely sung. Ms. Stagg floats Strauss’ piercing high notes with restraint and balance. She builds power and breadth with discernment and finesse while colouring the lower range with rich, velvet warmth.

This recording captures beautiful, youthful renditions of both song cycles. The orchestra sounds glorious, and the technicians have captured brilliantly the many‑layered intricacies of both scores. Highly recommended.

Gregory Pritchard




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