In truth, even I know that musical guilt is unnecessary – that rules are for fools – but I can't always prevent my scathing inner voice from reproaching me for not quite loving art song as much, or as deeply, or as intelligently as it seems to think I ought. When we – my inner voice and I – are in London, we lock horns more than usual. London has the Wigmore Hall, the Wigmore Hall erupts with vocal recitals on a monthly basis, and I never end up booking for as many of them as MIV would like.
I do attend my share of them. Sometimes, when it's been a long week or the evening has taken a shivering, stay-at-home turn for the worse, I require some forceful cajoling, but I can only think of one recent instance in which no combination of duty and desire won out, and even that was only because sheer fatigue trumped everything.
So I go, and I hear some excellent singing by some really remarkable singers. I hear plenty of significant and fascinating repertoire and I'm glad of it. And just as I'm reconciling myself to lacking some sort of Recital Appreciation Gene, somebody inevitably comes along and shoots all my guilt complexes to hell by being utterly sensational.
In February it was Soile Isokoski. I love Soile. The repertoire was also seriously tempting but, sue me, it was Soile I booked for, many months in advance. No cajoling required, then, except for my poor ailing nose and throat. Even on the morning of the recital, I wasn't sure I'd make it even to the end of the first half without coughing myself into shame and/or oblivion. Day Nurse, camomile tea and besottedness got me through. Maybe I was still sick, maybe I wasn't, but when Soile was singing, I stopped wondering one way or the other and just listened and was transported.
I've been in many audiences, but never have I been in one so palpably in the palm of a singer's hand than Soile's Wigmore Hall crowd. She was a one woman masterclass in all that could be taught about healthy, meaningful and exquisitely lovely singing, and an even greater lesson in all that cannot be taught, nor articulated by such an amateur (in both senses) as I.
Had all gone according to pre-booked schedule, that would still be my most recent Wigmore Hall visit but I was tempted, spur of the moment, to Stéphane Degout's recital two nights ago. I must be brutally honest: this is precisely the sort of recital which I'd be tempted to neglect, and for which I'd incur the wrath of that accursed inner voice. Not because of him, or the repertoire, just pure inertia. But I went and I am beyond pleased that I did.
In a sense, I had no specific expectations. I mean, I expected it to be a good recital, because Stéphane Degout is an acclaimed singer, Simon Lepper is a Pianist of Note, and the repertoire was nice, meaty stuff, if not anything I was intimately familiar with. In hindsight I'm glad I approached it in that way, because although I should have known more about Degout than I did, there is something to be said for being a bit blindsided, which I was.
He chose, especially for the first half, extended ballads rather than song cycles, to the point that, when I checked it online, not recognising titles like Loewe's "Edward" or Schumann's "Belsazar", the programme seemed inconceivably brief. Instead it was inconceivably riveting. I won't call them mini-operas, because that always sounds like a backhanded compliment, but these were songs which drew me in completely, and whose transient moods and manifold voices Degout handled with almost unnerving precision.
I raved, during the interval, about his "amazing technicolour voice" and was asked if it was pretty as well. "Ridiculously so," I said, and it kept getting prettier and more varied in its colours. After a panoply of German torment – and if "Edward" alone had last for half an hour, I'd have been glued to my seat – the second half was a little lighter: a misty bracket of Fauré and then Liszt's Petrarch sonnets. All of it bristlingly beautiful.
It's tempting – or at least, temptingly easy – to equate pretty voices with boring, automaton-style, immaculate singing, which is why I should probably stop using that adjective. Except that this is truly, and in the best sense, is one of the most gorgeous voices I've heard in a while – not new to the world, I know, not by a long shot, but new to me – and since I like some grittiness and gravel with my gorgeousness, my discovery of Degout is clearly long overdue.
That his whole physical presence and every facial expression were as evocative, as varied and as frequently frightening as the musical world his singing conjured up only adds to the depth of my regret at not figuring him out earlier. His is now a name I will scan season announcements for. I almost danced with my seat during the interval when I found that he does, as I had hoped, sing Hamlet: I only wish Thomas could come back and give him the tragic ending which he would certainly play to perfection.
Six paragraphs for the baritone and only two for the soprano. Uncharacteristic, I know, but ultimately not significant of any great shift in preferences. I love exceptional singing by exceptional singers, and both fall under that heading.Then again, so does practically anyone who gives a recital at Wigmore Hall; otherwise they wouldn't be there. And just as I'm sure every one of those people gives at least one person a performance to treasure, so these two tapped into some well-hidden compartment for me, reminding me, as somebody eventually always does, that I love this stuff just as much as I can and as much as I ought.
It's not about lacking a gene or a synapse or anything like that. You love what you love, and when you do, it's the best.