Sara Kobayashi, Avex Recital Series, Wigmore Hall

The second in this year’s Avex Recital series, soprano Sara Kobayashi made her UK debut at Wigmore Hall on Saturday 2 March with a diverse programme featuring well-known pieces from European composers and pieces from Japanese composers less known to European audiences. Ably accompanied by the fluid and considerate playing of pianist Ayaka Niwano, this performance was not the traditional (sometimes staid) recital, but a work of all-round entertainment.

Kobayashi’s stage presence is electric, visually captivating the audience even in traditional pieces, such as in Schubert’s Heidenröslein at the very beginning of the recital. Her choice of repertoire in the first half (including Strauss, Debussey and Fauré) began to demonstrate her broad stylistic range, though it is fair to say that her vocals, while impressive and always expressive, were not always flawless. Kobayashi’s intense expression occasionally got in the way of her tone and pitch, and some of her stylistic choices did not make the most of the repertoire. This was particularly notable in the English pieces (1 & 2 from Roger Quilter’s From Three Songs and Purcell arr. Britten Sweeter than Roses), which, when combined with such expression, came across almost seem a little cheesy. That said, the first half ended with a heartbreaking rendition of Paolo Tosti’s Quattro Canzoni D’Amaranta, demonstrating Kobayashi’s ability to perform classical western pieces not just adequately, but excellently. This was the absolute highlight for me, and I even shed a tear.

The second half was packed full of repertoire mostly unknown to the audience, containing works by Japanese composers (largely 20th-century) putting their own slant on the western classical tradition. It opened with two songs specifically written for Kobayashi by Dai Fujikura (who was also in attendance), which though not always to my taste, demonstrated the sheer range and theatricality of the performer, setting the tone for what was to follow.

Following proportionately more costume changes per song than a Beyoncé concert, the recital concluded with a performance of Mai composed by Kunihiko Hashimoto, during which Kobayashi demonstrated her dancing ability in Nichibu style.

The recital had some real high moments and left me both knowing a little more about the classical music scene in Japan and feeling thoroughly entertained. This, I suspect, is the aim of the recital series, which continues with HONJOH Hidejiro on Saturday 6 July:

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