★★★★☆ Aussie Heldentenor and friends pull out the stops in Tait 25th anniversary concert.

St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London
September 13, 2017

Expectations were high for what turned out to be a truly engaging evening of superb Wagner singing. One of Wagner and Liszt’s descendants, painter Antoine Wagner was there to add a note of family authenticity as we immersed ourselves in his ancestor’s glorious music.

The concert opened with a bevy of eight Valkyries appearing from all over the church. Their German diction was as impeccable as the singing and the sound beautifully pitched to fill the space. With assured four-handed piano accompaniment from Jayson Gillham and Richard Peirson, the tone for the evening was firmly set. This magnificent musical ride was encored at the end of the concert bringing further delight to an appreciative audience.

The evening consisted of extracts from Wagner operas, piano transcriptions of orchestral pieces and some Lieder. Stuart Skelton was obviously the big name of the evening and it was a privilege to hear him at close quarters, leaving no doubt about his heldentenor credentials.  The power, warmth and expressiveness of his voice is compelling and he sings in German like a native. Every nuance of text is supported musically and his giant voice is agile as well as strong and always emotionally engaging. His first solo was In Fernem Land from Act 3 of Lohengrin. There was a magnetic engagement with the audience and his impeccable phrasing drew us closely in, assuring us we were in safe hands.

It is typical of Skelton as a singer and an Australian that he would support an event like this. He knows the struggle to reach international acclaim and he is as generous to other singers off stage as he is on. Katrina Sheppeard and (who sang Isolde to his Tristan) and Samantha Crawford (who sang Sieglinde to his Siegmund) were magnificent. Two totally committed performances of high musical standards. The same applied to Catherine Carby who sang Isolde’s maid/companion Brangäne and ably displaying her Wagnerian abilities.

I was unable to see Skelton’s performance of Parsifal at Zurich Opera, but what an occasion it must have been. Nur eine Waffe taugt from Act 3 was totally absorbing. I long to hear him in more of the role. I did however review Skelton singing Tristan in June 2016 at English National Opera describing him as an “intelligent and focused singer who handles emotional and musical nuance with ease.” Singing the role in German he is even better. I was both moved and impressed.

Australian concert pianist Jayson Gillham treated us to some virtuoso playing with the Pilgechor (Tanhnhaüser) and Liebestod (Tristan und Isolde) transcriptions by Liszt. These pieces are not for the faint hearted and Gillham rose to the occasion with a display of stunning dexterity and music brilliance. Readers lucky enough to be in London on October 21 can catch him at Conway Hall where he will be playing a concert entitled Romantic Bach. Gillham is a Tait sponsored artist and testimony to how productive this partnership can be for young musicians.

What a delight it was to hear Liane Keegan sing Wagner Lieder. She sings with remarkable beauty and has great story telling skills which hold an audience. Her careful musical phrasing and rich vocal tones make her the perfect Wagnerian. She has power in reserve and it is no surprise she gained such good reviews when singing Erde in Opera Australia’s Ring. Keegan was one of the first recipients of a Tait scholarship 25 years ago. Persuading her to perform was an excellent idea to celebrate this milestone anniversary.

Skelton ended the concert (ably partnered by Samantha Crawford singing Sieglinde) in the role of Siegmund from Act 1 of Die Walküre. It felt as if they had been rehearsed in the roles together for a major production as the singing was outstanding. In 2013, when he sang the role in Australia, Michael Shmith in Opera Magazine said Skelton “blazed with intensity and purpose, yet also offered lyricism and beauty of tone.” The Tait concert audience received this and more. There was an allure to his performance that radiated beauty and defied indifference. Skelton is a truly great Australian musical ambassador.

The whole evening was a triumph for The Tait Memorial Trust and mention must be made of the indefatigable Chairman Isla Baring OAM who pulled everything together. She is the one able to pick up the phone and call in favours. Here is a woman with outstanding vision and energy who, along with her committee, has contributed so much to nurturing Australian talent.