Arcadia Lost

Andrew Achenbach
The Classical Review (US)

Here’s yet another classy SACD offering from the Australian Melba label. The three items featuring the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth’s shapely lead emanate from live concerts held within the Sydney Opera House on the first three days in October 2009. Not even a few isolated coughs and platform noises can tarnish one of the most probing, routine-free readings of The Lark Ascending to have come my way over recent years. A former leader of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Michael Dauth performs with heartwarming conviction and impressive security, and he generates a memorable rapport with Wigglesworth and company. The utterly magical hush distilled from 12’27” is alone worth the price of admission.

There’s plenty of perception, spontaneity and ardor, too, in Flos campi, which finds the orchestra’s principal viola Roger Benedict in hugely eloquent, technically flawless form (his burnished tone a joy to encounter) and features a beautifully prepared choral contribution from Cantillation. Wigglesworth paces proceedings to a finessed nicety, drawing out every ounce of rapt languor and tender intimacy from RVW’s yearningly sensuous paean to earthly love (each of whose six linked sections is prefaced in the score by a quotation from the Song of Solomon). What a bewitching, breathtakingly original masterwork it is!

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem is the interloper in this all-Vaughan Williams programme – albeit a most welcome one, given the unforced eloquence and commitment to its cause displayed by these accomplished artists. I like the purposeful tread of the ominous opening ‘Lacrymosa’, the piercing clash of major and minor at its apex hitting home with formidable cumulative impact, and if the comparatively distant balance slightly tames the savage bite of the hair-raising central scherzo (‘Dies irae’), there’s no want of soothing compassion in the deeply moving finale (‘Requiem aeternam’). Overall, Wigglesworth comfortably holds his own against some stiff competition from the likes of Previn, Rattle (both EMI) and Slatkin (RCA)…

Absolutely no technical qualms arise for the concluding item. Set down in the ideally intimate acoustic of Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium, it finds that consummate Australian tenor, Steve Davislim, teaming up with the youthful Hamer Quartet and pianist-composer Benjamin Martin for a radiant account of Vaughan Williams’s 1909 Housman-cycle On Wenlock Edge. Only superlatives will do for the musicianship on show: Davislim sings with an exquisite sensitivity, idiomatic understanding and honeyed tone that call to mind no less distinguished a former exponent than Ian Partridge (high praise indeed!), and his gifted colleagues are likewise wholly attuned to the idiom – how evocatively, for example, they conjure up the gale-tossed escarpment and “tangle and hum” of the summoning bells in the title-song and ‘Bredon Hill’ respectively.

…I for one would not want to be without this marvelously stylish newcomer. I need merely add that Melba’s presentation values are in the luxury class: Michael Kennedy provides the authoritative annotation; and the artwork, too, is exceptionally attractive.