Here is a true labour of love: a history of Australian singers on record from the Nellie Melba generation to that of Sutherland and beyond. Music historian Roger Neill and recording expert Tony Locantro have spent 13 long years bringing this project to fruition, and the results – presented by Decca Eloquence on a four disc set – are fascinating.
“Why has there been such an extraordinary procession of world-class Australian singers over such an extended period of time?” ask the producers. While providing no exact answers, this comprehensive survey includes some 80 wonderful singers in a wide range of musical genres, from opera to music hall and from art song to popular.
Lovingly restored and remastered from original sources, many of these recordings are rare to downright obscure, and many names will be rediscoveries for even those who thought they knew the history of Aussie singers on record.
The set begins with the eight Australians who are known to have been pupils of the great European singing teacher Madame Mathilde Marchesi. Ada Crossley, Amy Castles and Evelyn Scotney stand out, but the finest has to be Frances Alda who duets here with Caruso and whose In quelle trine morbide from Manon Lescaut comes up fresh as a daisy.
Other early gems are the remarkably rich contralto of Eileen Boyd captured in Sydney in 1927, the warm mezzo of Clara Serena singing Dalila in English for Columbia in 1929 and Essie Ackland who sings a charming Bless this House.
The men are hardly less distinguished. Walter Kirby (who clashed with Melba) had a very a fine voice, ditto the magnificently monickered Browning Mummery and the faux-Italian Lionello (born Lionel) Cecil who graced La Scala.
There are familiar masters too – Peter Dawson gets a few tracks including five out of James’ Six Australian Bush Songs, and there’s John Brownlee in the famous Busch Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne – but for rarities you can’t beat the great baritone Harold Williams singing the rollicking John Bax (a Cobb and Co song) on a private recording from 1955.
The music hall excerpts make for delightful palate cleansers, and some fine ‘modern’ singers are represented, from John Cameron and Elsie Morison to Nance Grant, Robert Allman, Joan Carden and ending with Emma Matthews.
A personal favourite? There really are so many crackers to choose from. Florence Austral singing Brünnhilde’s Hojotohos is a one off, but I’ll pick her 1928 Kingsway Hall recording of a scene from Götterdämmerung… now there was a voice!