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The Art of Nance Grant

01/10/2012
2MBS Fine Music (Australia)
Derek Parker
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Opera-lovers who remember performances in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1970s and early '80s will be delighted on the one hand and saddened on the other by this two-disc set of recordings by the soprano Nance Grant, who during two decades sang a great variety of roles under such conductors as Mackerras, Pritchard, Bonynge, Downes and Cillario - roles as varied as Britten’s Lady Billows and Beethoven’s Leonore, Strauss’s Marschallin and Verdi’s Mistress Ford. The sad - very sad - situation underlined here is the lack of really first-class recordings of a clearly first-rate talent.

Nance Grant began her career in Melbourne, and in the years between 1957 and 1972 established herself as a concert artist before beginning her appearances with Australian Opera and rapidly being recognised as a fine dramatic soprano capable of making an immediate impression in dramatic works – strongly encouraged by Sir Edward Downes, who clearly cast her with the greatest care and intelligence. She retired in 1991, and one would have expected – or at least confidently hoped – that she would leave a selection of recordings in some of her most acclaimed roles. In a sense, she did – and here they are, on one of these two discs – scenes from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, in which it would be fair to say that she made a sensation both with critics and the public, from Walküre, in which she must have been an assured and touching Sieglinde, and in Mozart – a wonderfully affection number from Idomeneo – Beethoven and Donizetti.

So what is the problem? - one must be delighted to have any recordings of this fine artist. The problem is – as the introductory booklet puts it – that the opera tracks were ‘taped in rehearsal, backstage, in performance, or from AM radio broadcasts [and] occasionally on a hand-held tape-recorder.’ Need I say more? One is strongly tempted to use words like ‘disgraceful’ about a circumstance which leaves us only such tattered reminiscences of a fine artist – for there is no doubt that Nance Grant was a fine artist. The extracts from Walküre (‘Der Männer Sippe’ and ‘Du bist der Lenz’, with the excellent tenor Jon Weaving under the Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam) are the tracks to hear if anyone doubts this: decently recorded at Melbourne Town Hall in 1979. But, for instance, though Miss Grant was clearly a fine Leonore, in ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ she has to battle with dreadfully balanced orchestral sound – the principal horn hogging the microphone with the soprano somewhere back behind the second violins.

But I really don’t want to suggest that these are not two extremely welcome discs. Though opera-lovers may regard the opera tracks as in the main an aide-mémoire, the opera disc ends with a fine performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder recorded in 1981 with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. The reproduction, while ‘not bad’ are the words springing to mind, is at least acceptable, and Ms Grant is simply wonderful: listen to Schmerzen if you doubt that word. Then, the second disc has a recital recorded by the ABC in 1976 in which she sings Grieg, Hageman and Strauss accompanied by that finest of all Australian accompanists Geoffrey Parsons. ‘Solvieg’s Song’ is touchingly heartfelt, and Strauss’s ‘Schön sind’ strongly suggests that, as reminiscence has it, she must have been a wonderful Marschallin. If it’s impossible not to end on a note of regret that Nance Grant should be so scantily represented on record (not alone – think of Eve Turner’s single disc!) this is another issue for which we must be grateful to a discriminating, thoughtful and generous record company.