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Shining Knight
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
West Australian Symphony Orchestra/Asher Fisch
rec. 2018, Perth Concert Hall, Western Australia
Sung texts with English translations (except Barber).
ABC CLASSICS 481 7219 [65:18]

Stuart Skelton’s name is for me connected with a very sad, almost traumatic situation back in 2002. My wife and I were in Vienna to celebrate my birthday and had booked tickets for a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the State Opera, where Gösta Winbergh was scheduled to sing Florestan. Two days before the performance we heard the shocking news that Winbergh had died, and there was deep dejection in Vienna with the State Opera draped with black veils. For the opera management the most imminent problem was to find a worthy replacement for Winbergh. They found him in Australia and thus Stuart Skelton made his European debut at shortest possible notice that March night in 2002. While still mourning Winbergh’s demise I realised that this young Australian, when he in the beginning of act II, after the long orchestral introduction, started singing Gott! Welch Dunkel heir! had all the qualities that should make him a great Heldentenor – if he played his cards right. That he did, was obvious when four years later I reviewed the first instalment of Melba’s Ring cycle from Adelaide, where he was Siegmund in the first act of Die Walküre. “Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund, is a major find”, I wrote, and continued: “when this Walküre was recorded he was already a fully fledged dramatic tenor with tremendous power and expressiveness and also capable of much sensitive lyrical singing. Just listen to Den Vater fand ich nicht (CD1 track 9). His voice reminds me of the great James King: it is beautiful, manly and steady and seemingly with inexhaustible lung capacity. His cries Wälse! Wälse! In the "aria" Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater (CD1 track 13) seem to last forever.” When Naxos recorded Die Walküre in Hong Kong Skelton was again Siegmund and again I hailed him enthusiastically in my review: “Stuart Skelton was Siegmund in the Melba Walküre, recorded in Adelaide in 2004 (review), and he was a sensation then. Eleven years later he is still a front-runner in the role. He may have lost a little of the youthfulness and freshness he displayed then but is just as nuanced here and with even deeper insight. His shouts of Wälse, Wälse (CD 1 tr. 8) are still impressive, while his lyrical and inward Winterstürme (CD 1 tr. 10) has rarely been more beautiful. The couple Siegmund and Sieglinde together at the end of the act is the emblem of ecstasy.”

Now, when he issues his first solo album he has again, as in the first Walküre, Asher Fisch as conductor. He knows his Wagner inside out and Skelton is as reliable as ever. Possibly there is no better Wagner tenor around at present. He delivers unforced singing, beautiful tone, strength, brilliance and natural phrasing. His enunciation is also exemplary. The five solos here are gems that also work well isolated from the opera itself. Rienzi’s prayer is without doubt the best known number from Wagner’s early opera and here the singer and his audience can really wallow in strong feelings and high Romantic sonorities. It is, as Robert Gibson says in his commentaries, a rarity in the world of opera with a prayer sung by a male character “as they are more usually the preserve of pious, but ultimately doomed, women.” Skelton tones down his magnificent voice for a sensitive, inward reading of Lohengrin’s In fernem Land, challenging singers of the past like Jess Thomas and James King. Of present day singers only Klaus Florian Vogt is in the same league, but his voice is of a different character, leaner, Tamino like. Winterstürme from Die Walküre is a well-known quantity for Skelton and he sings it with a rousing feeling of spring. The two excerpts from Parsifal are permeated with less overt feelings, more sermon-like, in particular Nur eine Waffe taugt, sung with steady tone, soulful and honest.

Few tenors have ventured into the Wesendonck songs, which have remained soprano territory. Melchior recorded two of the songs in the 1940s and René Kollo set down all five in 1992, when he was in his mid-50s and had lost much of beauty of tone and steadiness he had in the beginning of his career. His readings still had a lot to offer in insight and expression but should have been recorded much earlier. It is a pleasure to hear the songs with Stuart Skelton, still at the height of his powers and with depth of insight to match. Der Engel is soft, beautiful and with a hushed intensity. Stehe still is eager and deeply lyrical – and he certainly sings off the words. Im Treibhaus is deeply involved, intimate, personal. It’s a remarkably gripping reading. Schmerzen is just glorious, while Träume is quite magical. It is indeed fitting that he sings this song now, having of late been very much in demand as Tristan. Träume is a kind of blueprint for the Tristan music.

The non-Wagnerian fillers are surprising but definitely utterly attractive. Charles Griffes, who died only 35 years of age during the worldwide influenza pandemic in 1920, wrote numerous songs. The three recorded here were composed in 1918 and orchestrated the following year. The tonal language is late romantic tonal and easily accessible. As always Stuart Skelton wrings every drop of feeling out of the texts and the music.

Samuel Barber is better-know and his songs are a goldmine. Sure on this shining night was composed in 1938 and has become one of his most frequently heard songs. There is an anecdote about the song Barber himself often told. In 1979 Barber had just moved to a new apartment in New York City and needed to call home. He needed to contact Gian Carlo Menotti who was staying in the apartment. But Barber had forgotten the phone number and contacted the operator for help. She refused to give him the number, but then admitted that she was very fond of Sure on this shining night and asked Barber to sing the opening of the song to confirm his identity. Barber sang and got the number! Barber was a good singer himself but I wonder if he sang it as well as Stuart Skelton does on this recording.

Anyway, this disc is a must for admirers of Stuart Skelton, of Wagner, of Griffes – and of Barber.

Göran Forsling

Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
1. Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab [9:43]
2. In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten [5:23]
Die Walküre:
3. Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond [3:16]
4. Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde! [8:39]
5. Nur eine Waffe taugt [5:01]
Wesendonck Lieder [19:52]
6. I. Der Engel [3:03]
7. II. Stehe still! [3:51]
8. III. Im Treibhaus [5:52]
9. IV. Schmerzen [2:12]
10. V. Träume [4:29]
Charles GRIFFES (1884 – 1920)
Three Poems of Fiona MacLeod [10:08]
11. I. The Lament of Ian the Proud [3:42]
12. II. Thy Dark Eyes to Mine [2:25]
13. III. The Rose of the Night [3:47]
Samuel BARBER (1910 – 1981)
14. Sure on this Shining Night [2:21]

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