The title of this concert, The Call of the Huia, references the huia, a rare bird with beautiful but often strange calls, that originally inhabited New Zealand but became extinct in the early 20th century, a fate not dissimilar to that of most – if not all – of the songs featured in this recital. Music historian Michael Vinten led the audience on a fascinating journey of discovery into New Zealand’s neglected musical history, uncovering these forgotten art songs. This was the final stop of a national tour that has taken this innovative programme to all three main centres.

Following years of detailed research, Vinten has recently published a three-volume collection of these neglected art songs, dated from between the 1870s and the 1950s, and it was a selection from these volumes that was presented in Auckland, with the help of singers Catrin Johnsson, Oliver Sewell and Wade Kernot. This was part concert and part lecture, as Vinten chronicled the history or New Zealand art song through the lives of the composers and poets featured, stories alternately hilarious and tragic.

Somewhat surprisingly considering the period of the majority of these works, Māori and female voices were well represented in the programmed songs. Indeed, the opener, Akoako a te Rangi, represented both, a lovely little miniature penned by wāhine Māori composer Maewa Kaihou. This was followed by Te Whenua Kura, a piece by Alice Mackay depicting the suffering of Māori at the loss of their land, a powerful lament given suitable gravitas and some resonant low notes by bass Wade Kernot.

It cannot be credibly claimed that every song is some lost masterpiece, though there were plentiful little gems throughout and the detail provided by Vinten’s research gave interesting context to each song. While many of the earlier pieces were heavily influenced by 19th-century British song traditions, things took a surprising turn with the sudden hothouse eroticism of Bernard Page’s Your Grave Grey Eyes, set to a text by occultist Aleister Crowley. Sewell produced some ravishing mezza voce to cap off this expression of almost Straussian sensuality, as he also did in the very different word-painting in Owen Jensen’s ghostly In the Fountain Court. In soldier-turned-mathematician Alexander Aitkins’ White in the Moon, Kernot wove a desolate spell over spare piano textures.

One particularly interesting set was that given over to European refugees who arrived in New Zealand in the lead up to the Second World War, often to a lukewarm welcome. Georg Tintner may be more well-known as a Bruckner conductor, but as a composer he takes quite a different approach to Hermann Hesse’s Frühling than the well-known Strauss setting. This is an altogether more sombre work, though it opens out to an almost orchestral climax, Johnsson bringing a depth of expression and suitably operatic weight to its long phrases. In Richard Fuchs’ In der Fremde, another text familiar from Schumann, Sewell portrayed the intense sense of longing for a homeland Fuchs (a Jew previously interned in Dachau) would never see again. Kernot gave a similar feeling of desolation to the Marschlied of Paul Schramm, a Viennese émigré denied New Zealand citizenship due to his socialist leanings.

David Kelly did sterling work as accompanist, especially considering he was a last-minute replacement for Bruce Greenfield in rare works he likely would not have had much chance to perform before, particularly given the almost orchestral textures of the Page and Tintner works. The encore featured all three singers in a rousing rendition of My Own New Zealand Home, written by noted astronomer John Grigg, a rather kitschy but admittedly catchy 1879 song that according to Vinten, had been considered New Zealand’s unofficial national anthem at the time. Thanks to Vinten, this musical tradition has been given a chance at escaping extinction, unlike the huia, and one can only hope that more local performers take up the initiative in their future programming.