You only have to hear Dawn Upshaw or Barbara Bonney sing Aaron Copland’s exquisite Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson to know what’s wrong here. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the kind of singers who seem more comfortable with early and contemporary music which ostensibly requires a certain coolness and detachment? Perhaps. But New York-based Australian soprano Jane Sheldon – who is a contemporary and early music specialist and whose North + South was nominated for Best Classical Album at the 2013 ARIA awards – seems ill-equipped to plumb the emotional depths of Dickinson’s poetry.
Simply put, Upshaw and Bonney know how to tell a story; Sheldon does not. Even in Nigel Butterley’s Three Whitman Songs, poor ol’ Walt’s ecstatic visions suffer from Sheldon’s lack of convincing expressive gesture. She fares better in Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s Wallace Stevens’ settings, 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; poetry and music here require a more detached response; and indeed Sheldon’s voice does have a beguiling, flute-like beauty, especially in the upper register. Ross Edwards’s fine Judith Wright setting The Lost Man also sits well with Sheldon, and indeed elicits more warmth than is generally heard elsewhere.
Throughout, Nicole Panizza’s playing is as subtle and sophisticated as the music itself. She and Sheldon have worked a great deal together, and it’s tempting to characterise their relationship this way: Sheldon draws the cold, clear line; Panizza supplies all the colour.