‘If London were like Venice’ – songs to end the St Andrew’s series

Michael Gray (tenor) and Bruce Greenfield (piano)

Arias by Vivaldi and Tosti
Benjamin Britten: Song Cycle ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday, 19 March, 6.30pm

This concert brought to an end the innovative and interesting series of concerts of the St. Andrew’s season, timed to coincide with the International Arts Festival in Wellington.  Richard Greager and Marjan van Waardenberg, and St. Andrew’s Church, are to be congratulated on their enterprise and effort in bringing music-lovers a range of unusual repertoire and outstanding performers, notably singers and chamber musicians.

Unfortunately attendances, particularly at the early evening concerts (as compared with the lunchtime performances) were not large.  However, this concert bucked the trend; there was a well-filled church to hear the young tenor.

Michael Gray produced an excellent programme for his recital: the first page boasted a coloured picture of the Grand Canal, Venice, complete with gondolas, superimposed with buildings on London’s Trafalgar Square.  Good programme notes were followed by translations of all the songs.  Gray gave a spoken introduction to each group of songs.

Bruce Greenfield, described aptly in the brochure for the series as ‘doyen of Wellington accompanists’, was sympathetic and supportive, and as so often, managed at times to suggest a full orchestra.

The recital’s programme represented the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with seldom-heard works.

The first of the Vivaldi arias, ‘Dovea svenarti allora’ from Catone in Utica, was Vivaldi at his most dramatic.  Gray had variety of tone and a good sense of style for this music, but his high note at the end was more of a shriek.

Mostly, his tone was natural and unforced, while his Italian language, benefiting from five weeks in Italy last year, came over easily and clearly.

Britten’s cycle using John Donne’s wonderful sonnets was a very different animal from the Winter Words cycle by the same composer, sung by James Rodgers.

The declamatory nature of many of the musical settings became even aggressive and powerful in the second song ‘Batter my heart’.  This is difficult music to learn and to perform, and the accompaniment, virtuosic at times, does not help the singer a lot.

Gray’s voice is very different from that of Peter Pears, but he carried it off well, and conveyed the sense of the words thoughtfully. A beautiful pianissimo closed the third song ‘O! Might those sighs and tears…’.  In moments of word painting, such as ‘when I shake with feare’ in ‘Oh, to vex me…’, and ‘Christ crucified’ in ‘What if this present…’, the singer made the most of the opportunities presented.

Nevertheless, for me Donne’s words are better read as poetry.  Their sheer complexity defies musical setting.  Their music is in the words; musical setting does not enhance the words greatly, despite the competency of one as skilled as Benjamin Britten.

The dynamic range and nuance that can be brought into play by a skilled reader, is greater than that to be found in singing with piano accompaniment.  Yet this was a powerful performance of this setting of Donne’s superb words, and a tour de force for both performers.  Here again, Gray’s words were presented with clarity.

One of the Tosti songs (La Serenata) was also sung by James Rodgers, in his recital at the Adam Concert Room on Sunday evening.  Having seldom heard the composer’s songs, which were fashionable pre-World War II, I was surprised to hear them twice in a few days.  Nor were they as sentimental as I imagined.  Only for these songs did Michael Gray use the printed music.

If he hasn’t quite the smooth silky voice of the Italian tenor one imagines singing these songs, nevertheless he is a very fine, accomplished and intelligent singer.  For these songs he did produce a more Italianate tone, caressing the words appropriately. Again, there was some fine pianissimo singing.

Gray’s superb performance as Jupiter in the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele last year, coupled with this excellent recital bode well for his future career.

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