This year marks ten years since SUGC began to record its concerts.
As the then President, clearly a very wise person, said in reporting to the 2005 AGM:
These recordings will serve as important documents for the Choir as an institution and for us individually as singers. So long as they remain affordable, which requires the bulk of our members making the effort to buy them, they should become as normal a part of our concert processes as producing the program.
In general, it can be said that the hope expressed all those years ago has been realized.
In truth, our very first foray into the world of recording was somewhat shaky. This was our concert, entitled ‘Heavenly Harmonies’ of May 2004, in which we performed the Mozart Vesperae Solennes de Confessore (one of his most ravishingly beautiful creations) and Bruckner’s early and little known Requiem in D Minor. The Mozart performance stands up well, but a technical hitch struck the Bruckner recording when the recordist, a volunteer provided by 2MBS FM (now known as Fine Music 102.5), who, somewhat surprisingly, was using tape, ran out of it with a couple of movements to go. No doubt, the afore-mentioned President was left to rue his sententious words after this minor tragedy.
In any event, the situation was improved later in the year, when Greg Ghavalas made his recording debut with us, for our December performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. At that stage, Greg was also a volunteer with 2MBS FM, but has subsequently taken up recording concerts as a post-retirement profession. For many years now, his business-like, quietly cheerful, unflappable personage has become a source of reassurance to us as we go through the nervous process of rehearsing with the orchestra and giving concerts in the Great Hall. Greg has consistently done a high quality job for the choir, including on the bigger, and more technically challenging stage of the Sydney Town Hall with our April 2013 Sydney Sings: Verdi Requiem. The ‘Highlights’ disc of that performance is of an excellent technical quality and a worthy souvenir of that landmark event in the choir’s history. A non-expert listen to the first cut of Christopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem, recorded in the Town Hall on 10 August, suggests that Greg has pulled off another recording coup.
Sales of the recordings do normally cover costs, and complimentary copies are an excellent way of presenting the choir to VIPs, potential sponsors and potential new audience members. Every member will have his or her favourites. Recorded concerts that stand out in my mind are of works by the somewhat underrated composers, Haydn and Mendelssohn. Particularly noteworthy: Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, from August 2007, when a very talented trio of young soloists—Bernadette Fisher, Stuart Haycock and Andrew Finden—perhaps inspired the Choir to a particularly high standard of performance, and Die Jahreszeiten of August 2009, when Amy Corkery made her unforgettable debut with us. In the same vein, Mendelssohn’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht from December 2011, and Paulus from May 2012, two unfamiliar masterpieces elicited outstanding performances from the choir and featured outstanding soloists—Celeste Lazarenko, Andrew Goodwin, Morgan Pearse and Alexander Knight. Encouragingly, in view of the musical challenge it represented, our recording of Bach’s Johannes Passion, from August 2013, stands out as a very impressive effort, with excellent soloists—Jenny Duck-Chong, Belinda Montgomery Richard Butler, Henry Choo, Morgan Pearse and Simon Lobelson—and some very decent singing from the Grads.
Recording, of course captures, glitches for posterity as well as triumphs. The most striking of these occurred in our performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem in December 2005. In the dramatic sixth movement, when the Last Trump is sounded, the choir managed to get a beat ahead of the orchestra and, with remarkable precision, to stay there for about thirty seconds, including across a bar’s rest, teetering on the verge of collapse. Thanks largely to Christopher Bowen’s steely professionalism, the apparently inevitable disaster was averted and the vocal and instrumental forces got together again, only to suffer the intrusion of exploding fireworks from nearby Victoria Park during Brahms’s ethereal finale Selig sind die Toten. Fortunately, a later (December 2013) performance of this great choral masterpiece gave us a shot at redemption, which, happily, we took successfully, to the satisfaction, among others, of then Governor Marie Bashir and former Prime Minister Paul Keating.
Our Music Director, Christopher Bowen, sets high standards for himself and expects the same of the choir. On only two occasions has he availed himself of his conductor’s prerogative of vetoing release of recorded performances: of the difficult Bruckner Mass in E Minor, of August 2010 and the much more familiar but deceptively tricky Vivaldi Gloria of December 2013.
The Chamber Choir has been recorded on a number of occasions and, it must be said, has generally come up very well, despite regular changes in its personnel. My favourite among its recordings is Purcell’s spine-chilling Funeral Music for Queen Mary, performed as part of the ‘Music for Kings and Queens’ concert from December 2009, in which Steve Machamer’s timpani are given an unusual spotlight.
Mention of Steve serves to remind me of one of the elements that consistently performs at a high standard in our recorded performances—the orchestra. The orchestral musicians provide high quality accompaniment to the choir, as a matter of course. What they are really capable of becomes clear when one listens to recordings of them playing purely instrumental works, such as the Overture to Verdi’s Force of Destiny from May 2010, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture from May 2011, and, most remarkably of all, Debussy’s Prélude a l’Après-Midi d’un Faune from December 2011. These recordings underline the enormous contribution the orchestra makes to the experience of singing with Grads and of attending our concerts, a fact underlined by their outstanding playing once again in An Australian War Requiem.
With that wonderful musical experience behind us, we can look back with satisfaction on a decade of work, the recordings from which confirm that the choir has progressed well and is on an upward trajectory.