Soraya Mafi gave a sparkling performance at Wigmore Hall choosing songs reflecting her Persian heritage. Our voyage to the East opened with Schumann’s emotionally intense Byron setting ‘Aus den hebräischen Gesängen’. The chromatic introduction was beautifully detailed by Graham Johnson and Mafi neatly negotiated the tortuous leap of a seventh which recurs, implying the anguished, depressed state of the poet healed by the sound of music. A testing start, and nicely balanced with the two lighter items that followed, by Richard Strauss in luminous style and Hugo Wolf with gentle humour.
Schubert’s unforgettable ‘Suleika I & II’ settings followed, Mafi conveying the sweet ecstatic longing and anticipation brought to the lover on the wings of a breeze. The introspective passages were beautifully phrased as were the dramatic and steamy conclusions. Schumann’s ‘Lied der Suleika’ was a more delicate affair leading to two more psychologically complex Wolf settings, of Goethe , which Mafi and Johnson gave as supreme emotional drama.
A group of mélodies brought a change in tone. Bizet’s stunning ‘Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe’ was a highlight, Mafi’s warm and flexible soprano hinted at a Carmen in the making. Fauré’s ‘Les roses d'Ispahan’ followed, and then Johnson shared the spotlight for ‘Tournoiement’, Saint-Saëns’s evocation of a fevered opium dream, the virtuoso piano part paired with the dizzying vocal line. Roussel’s ‘Réponse d’une épouse sage’ found its gorgeous dark-hued accompaniment contrasting with Mafi’s light, silvery vocal line.
Add sweetness for ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, but the frenzied speed and subsequent lack of clear diction of Noël Coward’s ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ made it the only disappointment of the recital. This was soon effaced by the encore, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, which celebrated Mafi’s mother’s Irish heritage.