Hannah Bradbury (soprano)
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Duncan Rock (baritone)
Piotr Lempa (bass)
Eric von Ibler
Mozart Singing Competition 2009 Final
Sunday, February 08, 2009 49 Queen’s Gate Terrace, St John’s Wood, London
Reviewed by Richard Nicholson
The “Mozart Singing Competition” is a relative newcomer, beginning as an event for pianists under 18 but soon coming to focus on singers, whom sponsors apparently prefer. Previous finalists have included Orla Boylan, Lucy Crowe, Rebecca Evans, Franzita Whelan, Jane Irwin, Katerina Karneus, Alfie Boe, Andrew Sritheran, James Rutherford and Mark Stone. The international entry this year amounted to 115 singers.
The jury members are often remote in major competitions and we have to guess at their criteria for marking the contestants, but this is much more of an intimate family affair, hosted by the Vernon Ellis Foundation. Each member of this panel contributed some public thoughts on the exercise before the announcement of the result. Sheila Armstrong was particularly pointed in dealing with the targets that young singers should aim at: going beyond each piece as a vocal exercise and showing understanding of the text, appreciating the character, showing creative imagination, feeling for style and the ability to colour the tone. She stressed the importance of clear enunciation and thoughtful programme planning. She described the act of musical communication as the performer’s gift to the audience. Eric von Ibler drew attention to the need for a balance between the language of singing and that of movement and gesture, while Richard Jackson rejoiced at the differences of opinion engendered by such competitive events. Realistically, he pointed out that assessing musical performers was bound to involve weighing positive against negative features. I doubt whether there was much heated argument among the jurors, who were absent for little more than twenty minutes, about the outcome.
Fourth prize went to Piotr Lempa, a Polish bass and the oldest male competitor to reach the semi-final stages. His voice has the craggy sound often possessed by low-register East European singers; I was reminded of Sergei Leiferkus. He offered works in four languages. His understanding of the text of Tchaikovsky’s “A tear trembles” was unmistakable and supported by convincing gestures, while the covering of his tone at the top of the voice suggested a prudent approach to such emotional music. His English, though accented, was clear enough to communicate Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The roadside fire” in Vaughan Williams’s setting. The second of two Handel arias, ‘Leave me, loathsome light’ from “Semele” found him trying a little too hard to produce rounded tone, leading to some distortion, especially on the repeated word “murmur”, while there was some aspirating in the runs of ‘Si tra i ceppi’ from “Berenice” (though no lack of zest). The only true bass piece he essayed was Osmin’s first aria. The lack of colour or bulk on the refrain “Tra la lera…” deprived the piece of much of its latent humour.
Kathryn Rudge was implicitly praised by Sheila Armstrong for choosing, uniquely among the finalists, a humorous song, Dankworth’s parody of the Werther story “Bread and Butter”. I could not describe her approach to it as particularly convivial, however. Stern and detached would be nearer the mark. She has a voice that will surely ensure her a lucrative career: when she came to two Richard Strauss songs I could hear a nascent Elektra. Dorabella’s “Smanie implacabili” was a dramatic success. From the opening ire-spitting recitative there was no doubt that the character was taking herself too seriously. Unfortunately, through much of her programme, the voice, which is by nature hard and unyielding in texture, restricted her range of expression. Her deportment was too consistently one of staring straight ahead with implacable resolution. Vanessa’s aria from Act One of Samuel Barber’s opera was less a question of anxiety over the severity of winter than of a woman berating those around her. Perhaps she was trying to explain why Vanessa’s mother had not spoken to her for several years! Third place was awarded to this gifted young (only 22) dramatic soprano.
The Australian Duncan Rock is a very assured performer. His rendering of Tchaikovsky’s “Podvig jest' i v srazhen'ji”, which extols the virtues of stoicism in the face of frustration, was well shaped, with its low, dark opening seamlessly proceeding to a high climax, in which the singer seemed equally comfortable. The expressions of joy in Schumann’s “Widmung” were rather too much like celebrations of military victory but Finzi’s “Fear no more the heat of the sun” received a model performance: the text was clearly enunciated within a sound legato; indeed Shakespeare’s words were relished in a manner equal to that of a fine actor. Power was there when needed, alongside well-supported soft singing. Impersonating Tarquinius from Britten’s opera as he stands over Lucretia’s sleeping body requires a similar way with the text. Britten’s writing embodies both libido and nobility and Rock had the vocal range and artistic sensitivity to express both and to herald a career as a singing actor. I expected him to win the First Prize but can perhaps understand why he did not. This was the Mozart Singing Competition and the Count’s aria from “Le nozze di Figaro” was his least impressive performance. He was not prepared to let the music speak for itself. Off-pitch accents to reinforce strong emotion belong in verismo opera, not in Mozart, and here they introduced an element of hectoring foreign to the Count, who is an aristocrat for all his licentiousness and vengefulness.
Not that the eventual winner, Hannah Bradbury, has as yet got that fiendishly difficult aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” in her bones. Her line bulged, her pitch sometimes flattened, but she consistently put across Pamina’s desolation and at 21 this was more than just a plucky effort. Her great plus point, in Richard Jackson’s terms, was that she alone of the singers properly tailored her performance to the limited scale of the auditorium, the size of a rather imposing drawing-room. Her “Comme autrefois” was delivered with just the right degree of intimacy. There was a generous vibrato, it is true, perhaps attributable to nervousness, but it was allied to considerable grace. In terms of the aria’s structure, rubato in the outer sections was rightly contrasted with forward momentum in the central passage “C’est lui!”. Finesse in French music was also confirmed in mélodie with Duparc’s “Chanson triste”. The ability to portray different characters through vocal means was displayed in Schubert’s “An mein Herz”, where the tone became girlish; in addition Bradbury handled the various episodes in the song without monotony. Her last offering was “O mio babbino caro”, the aria of another girl, and this time given with Italian amplitude of feeling and tone. The need to convey affection for the daddy of the title was not neglected.
The piano-accompaniment of Alex Abercrombie, founder of the competition with his wife Barbara Dix, was only heard on this occasion in the final round and supported Hannah Bradbury particularly well. Of the other accompanists, Clara Moroney particularly impressed me.
This was an agreeable evening held at the home of Vernon Ellis, International Chairman of Accenture and Chairman of the English National Opera. Mr Ellis’s philanthropy focuses particularly on young musicians. Those who appeared in this Final maintained the high standard one has come to expect from such competitive events. I imagine Sheila Armstrong and Mark Wildman, who were also jury members at the Royal Academy of Music’s Richard Lewis/Jean Shanks Award recently, would agree that the talent to perpetuate opera and song is clearly present in abundance in the coming generation of singers. Just one reservation I have: in a competition which carries Mozart’s name in its title, surely more than one piece by Mozart should be required of the competitors in each round?