Photograph of Kathleen Ferrier

Finalists
Julianne de Villiers (mezzo-soprano) & Mark Nixon (piano)

Ailish Tynan (soprano) & Simon Lepper (piano)

Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone) & Michael Hampton (piano)

Andrew Kennedy (tenor) & James Longford (piano)

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano) & Simon Lepper (piano)

Joint Winners
Jonathan Lemalu (bass) & Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Competitions hold their perennial love/hate fascination, with the pros and contras regularly rehearsed. For the large audience at the Wigmore Hall, the 24 April afternoon of singing was probably more enjoyable and musically rewarding than were the recent semi-finals (or indeed the Finals) of the London International Piano Competition held at South Bank Centre earlier in the month. Sixty-one aspirants with UK training qualifications, forty-seven of them women, were reduced to eleven, and for one listener the Jury ’got it wrong’ at that stage and at the end – a familiar experience.
Each semi-finalist offered a mixed 20-minute programme of an operatic aria, a Handel aria, and two songs in different languages from the nineteenth-century or more recent.There was very little duplication so it made for a pleasant concert, one that for a pianist held the added interest of being able to hear nine accompanists in rapid succession on the same Steinway.
My clear preferences amongst the eight singers I heard were for two men, bass Jonathan Lemalu and counter-tenor Clint van der Linde. Lemalu judged his presentation perfectly with one of the more dramatic of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, ’Prince Gremin’s aria’ (from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), Handel’s ever-topical ’Why do the Nations?’ (Messiah) and William Bolcom’s cabaret-song, Black Max, given with delightful insouciance. He was the obvious front-runner and presented another cunningly balanced programme to show his range of attributes in the Finals – late Fauré and from Schubert’s Winterreise to stake his claim as a song-recitalist, dramatic intensity in Finzi’s ’Channel Firing’, sardonic humour as Gounod’s Méphistophélès and a rounded personality for Rossini’s ’A’un dottor’, his exemplary diction and machine-gun patter delivery a lesson to most of the others.
Clint van der Linde (aged 24) delighted me with a Bach cantata-aria and one from Mozart’s Mitridate, and in well-contrasted songs by Fauré and Herbert Howells. The voice was open, easily produced and smooth over all registers, with no strain or ’whooping’, a sense of style which was as comfortable in Fauré as in the baroque, good platform manner with absorption in the music, not self-consciously addressed to the jury. He was not selected for the Final; perhaps because some jury members feel like a fellow-critic who voiced the one-time familiar opinion, with which early counter-tenors in the Alfred Deller epoch had to contend, "I don’t like counter-tenors; a man should be a man"!There is plenty of time for Clint van der Linde; I predict a great future.
Of the other semi-finalists, soprano Elizabeth Atherton had appeared fresh and confident – others just looked stiff and worried – and suggested that she actually enjoys singing (an essential attribute) but she did not make the Final. Several were inclined to under-project, my notes having remarks like “sound but not charismatic … well trained, too muted … inclined to be driven by the pianist … needs bringing out … too careful … under projected … refined but uninvolving”.Words and consonants were in short supply – one neighbour asked in what language one finalist was singing (it was English) and from my other side came the suggestion that they might all be singing in Chinese.
Those strictures were reinforced for me in the disappointing Finals, with none besides Lemalu displaying real star quality; nor did any of the competing accompanists stand up in the company of Mark Nixon (van de Linde) and Michael Hampton (Lemalu). Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill has the voice (really more a contralto) and potential but let herself down by unwise choices of programme and with odd fining-down of her tone so that from the critics’ seats at the back of the Hall it lost all life; nothing that can’t be remedied.Andrew Kennedy had a bad night and belied his CV with a recent Handel prize, nor was he (and another) helped by the limp support of accompanist Simon Lepper. Another mezzo-soprano, Julianne de Villiers (a semi-finalist in the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition) was weak in her lower register.
The results were surprising; there was no outright winner declared and Jonathan Lemalu shared £10,000 with Karen Cargill. Whether both will receive offers of Wigmore Hall recitals is not clear. (Lemalu has an EMI ’Debut’ CD with Roger Vignoles in the pipeline.) Julianne de Villiers received £2,500 for the best performance of a song (which song, I cannot guess) and Simon Lepper £1,500 as the best of those accompanists competing.
What overall conclusion can be advanced? The devil may be in the small print. By stringent national residential requirements, the organisers risk a standard below what a paying audience has a right to expect – a year’s approved singing course in the UK and, for accompanists, three consecutive years resident in UK. The age limit is 29, allowing well-established professionals to compete, and the repertoire stipulations are sensibly flexible – many could have chosen differently to show themselves to better advantage. That apart, it comes down to subjectivity and the possibility, as Charles Ives put it, that one’s listening ears may be fitted the wrong way!

 

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