Written by: John T. Hughes
26 & 28 April 2006, Wigmore Hall, London
Jury: Sir Brian McMaster (chairman), Elizabeth Connell, Joan Rodgers, Nigel Douglas and Malcolm Martineau
Not since Garry Magee was the victor in 1995 has a man won the Kathleen Ferrier Award outright. (Jonathan Lemalu was a joint winner in 2002.) Of the ten semi-finalists this year, only three were male. Seven contestants were from overseas (eight if one counts Ireland): two Australians, two New Zealanders, a South African, a Sri Lankan and one from France.
I write this part without knowing which singers have been chosen for the final. First to be heard in the semi-final was soprano Amanda Forbes, the youngest competitor at 24, whose voice was well placed but rather hard in timbre. Her most successful contribution was the Doll Song from “Les contes d’Hoffmann”, in which accurate staccato notes were welcome. She would appear to be an opera-singer primarily. Her high-lying voice should be an asset, as long as she is not type-cast as Olympia or Queen Grimson. I liked her singing in a recital she gave in the Crush Room at Royal Opera, much because of her readiness to vary the weighting of tone. To her credit in this competition was the skilful lifting of the voice in the upward leaps in “Ruhe sanft” from “Zaïde”. Her programme did lean towards the slow side in choice of items.
We were still in the southern hemisphere with the third singer: the baritone Andrew Conley from New Zealand. Although the short biography that was provided mentioned such operatic roles as Rossini’s Figaro, Mozart’s Almaviva and Junius in “The Rape of Lucretia”, I cannot think that his rather small voice will carry such roles in a large opera house. As heard here, the voice is short at both ends, lacking ring at the top and strong support below. He was better in the songs.
Next was the sole mezzo-soprano, possessor of a voice of true quality. Jennifer Johnston certainly impressed many to whom I spoke afterwards. Her tone was rich, ample, well focused and, to my ears, of the front rank. In “Svegliatevi nel core” (“Giulio Cesare”), through which she moved with ease, the voice ‘speaking’ quickly despite its size, she reminded me in some phrases of Janet Baker. There was a well-phrased reading of Mahler’s “Liebst du um Schönheit”. If the gods are listening, she should have a fine career. There followed the other tenor, Robin Tritschler from Ireland. In “Ermuntre dich” from Bach’s Cantata 180, his top notes resembled those of an ‘haute-contre’, while his lower range did not lack body and weight. He sang one of the most sensitive accounts of the Dream Song from “Manon” that I have heard, responsive and refined, with eloquent use of head voice. Rossini’s “Chanson du bébé” reflected Tritschler’s sense of humour, and Tchaikovsky’s “We sat together” was sung with intelligence and understanding.
The second half was begun by Anna Leese, one of four sopranos in this section. Her voice is basically a fine one, but was it nerves which caused a few touches of suspect intonation in “Bist du bei mir” and Mozart’s “Di tante sue procelle” (“Il Re Pastore”)? She has a CV which demands respect, and I think there is more to her than I heard here. The male intruder into this group of sopranos was baritone Jacques Imbrailo from South Africa. He has a voice more suited than Conley’s to Italian Opera, as demonstrated in a strong account of “E fra quest’ ansie”, a strange choice from the Nedda/Silvio duet from “Pagliacci”. He certainly challenged himself with “Manche dich” from “St Matthew Passion”, for this angular, jagged aria contains some awkward intervals and some low notes which did not display Imbrailo’s voice too well. He was either brave or foolhardy to choose it.
Back we went to soprano territory for the last three contestants. Sophie Angebault surprised somewhat by offering nothing from her native France. She has quite a warm timbre and some power, as shown in Wolf’s “Kennst du das Land”. Some would hold that her vibrato is more suited to Romantic music than to Handel, and it was rather pronounced in Bridge’s “Love went a-riding”. Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” was more in her line. Kishani Jayasinghe, like Imbrail, is to join the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at Covent Garden in September. After one had heard Angebault, Jayasinghe’s voice seemed rather small, and I wondered how it would fare at the Royal Opera. Its placement suggests all will be well. The descending phrases at the close of Rachmaninov’s “O do not sing again” were neatly managed, and a slightly darker colouring enhanced the sadness in Liù’s “Tu che di gel sei cinta”: a touching interpretation. Finally, we heard Elizabeth Watts, who moved with agility through “Amor è qual vento” from “Orlando”, displaying a gleaming upper register: a fine piece of Handel singing, which preceded a well-phrased account of “Deh vieni, non tardar” on a smooth musical line, then a sensitive perusal of Debussy’s “L’ombre des arbres”.
There were years in which one could be almost guaranteed that the Guildhall School and the Royal Northern College of Music would be well represented in a Ferrier Awards semi-final. This year, the former had one student; the latter had nobody. The RCM dominated. Who will please the five judges?
I was not too disappointed on discovering just before the final who had been favoured, though Robin Tritschler would have been in my quintet.
Elizabeth Watts sang first in the final, before hieing to the Coliseum for ENO’s “Orfeo”. She gave another highly competent display, beginning with a well schooled “Je suis encore tout étourdie” (“Manon”), to which her shining tone was most suitable. She possesses a voice of fine quality, plus musicality. Poulenc’s two songs to Louis Aragon poems were pleasing, and she finished with a creditable rendition of “La mia costanza” from Handel’s “Ezio”, not one of the easiest of the great man’s arias. After her performances, Watts had to be on a very short list. (I actually thought that as she was last to sing in the semi-final and first in the final she would be the winner.)
Then came Jennifer Johnston, whose selection was less well balanced than in the semi-final: four slowish items before “Parto, parto” (“La Clemenza di Tito”). I am not sure that the strophic “Barbara Allen” (Quilter) told us much, and the ubiquitous “Zueignung” also gives too little opportunity, but the ‘Letter Scene’ from “Werther” and a Mozart aria played to her strengths: the former for sumptuousness of tone, the latter for the supple vocalisation. Opera would seem to be her forte, and the voice, rock-solid, beautifully focused, firmly supported, impressed again.
The third lady was Martene Grimson. Indeed, these three, Watts, Johnston and Grimson, were my definite choices for the final. Norina’s “Qhel guardo” (“Don Pasquale”) needs, I suggest, a crisper, more pinpoint tone than Grimson’s sweet and gentle one, which she can float effectively. She places intervals accurately, as in the “Zaïde” aria in the semi-final and in “Depuis le jour” (a difficult aria) in the final. This latter found her poised, thought necessarily awake to exposed notes.
After the break came the male contribution. Jacques Imbrailo began with the only Verdi aria to be offered. “Eri tu” (“Ballo in Maschera”) is a big piece, too big, I felt for this singer. He pushed his upper notes hard, and they lost quality: some were insecure (his is not a sonorous voice). I feared that if he continues thus, there will be not be a top left in a few years’ time. “Morgen” showed that the tone needs more support. Best was Finzi’s “The clock of the years”, which lay well and benefited from imaginative treatment.
Lastly we heard Kishani Jayasinghe, who gave a clear account of “Hear ye Israel” (“Elijah”), generally clean in execution but with just one of two slithers to top notes. She was a convincing Mimì, phrasing intelligently and shading neatly. That Fiordiligi is in her repertoire surprised me, and her singing of the difficult “Come scoglio”, with its leaps and plunges, suggested that her voice is more suited to Despina: she did not supply the needed impact. She is a skilled singer in the right role.
Thence to decisions. I should have agreed with the choice of anybody from the first half, but my guess, prior to hearing a note in the final, that Elizabeth Watts would be chosen, proved to be correct. Martene Grimson was awarded second prize. Pleasingly, and I think justly, the Song Prize was won by Robin Tritschler.
There is also a prize for best accompanist. Six who played in the semi-final were competing, and all did a fine job. Would it go to Nicholas Rimmer, who adroitly and sensitively played for Tritschler, or to James Baillieu, who provided some nice touches (accompanying the Sri Lankan), or Gary Matthewman with Watts? It was Baillieu.