Today's Marama Hall concert was my first since July, and rewarded my patience with a programme nicely biased towards the voice, a pleasant change from the usual fair balance between piano and vocal items. (I'm just being mean. Otago's pianists are wonderful and I'd never wish them away.) The one piano item on the programme, Weber's Variations on a Russian Theme, had a couple of points in its favour, too: it was very nicely played (by Cara Chung) and it didn't depict water. Brilliant.
Attending a recital with no idea who's performing or what they'll sing is always a slight risk but it does open the way to some delightful surprises. Like sitting down, opening the programme and discovering I was about to hear my favourite local mezzo sing Brahms' Zigeunerlieder. Claire Barton's name on the programme is enough to keep me happy regardless but I also have a particular affection for these songs — during my Grace Bumbry period I listened obsessively to her recordings of them, and though it's admittedly been a while since I revisited them, they've stayed with me. Claire sang them gorgeously, with humour, tenderness and excellent German. The other female voice on the programme impressed me rather less. With worryingly strident tone, Fiona Henry (who has sounded far sweeter in the past) delivered three items not so much to the audience as to some point in the distance above our heads, with a sameness of expression which failed to distinguish between Purcell ("Come all ye songsters"), Walton ("Daphne") and Victor Herbert ("Art is calling for me") and didn't suit any of them.
For Michael Gray, I begin a new paragraph. He deserves the honour and others besides. Michael gave us the first four songs from Schumann's Liederkreis. This was supremely sensitive and hauntingly beautiful singing. The devastating loneliness of "In der Fremde" was as magically captured as the joy of "Die Stille", "Intermezzo" genuinely touching. "Waldesgespräch" really did come across as dialogue, expressively and convincingly delivered — the rush of audible fear on the words "Du bist die Hexe Lorelei" sent shivers down my spine. Sitting here writing this all I want is to hear Michael sing these songs again. Not that's not true — I'd also like to hear him sing the other eight in the cycle. And I'm biased. But that doesn't matter, because if he'd been a new name today the effect would have been the same — enchanting.