Kathleen Ferrier Award 2008 – Semi-Final

Written by: John T. Hughes

The Contestants:
Stephanie Corley, Elizabeth Donovan, Rhona McKail, Eliana Pretorian, Kirstin Sharpin, Ida Falk Winland (sopranos); Charlotte Tetley (mezzo-soprano); Ben Johnson, Adrian Ward (tenors); Alexander Robin Baker, Derek Welton (baritones)

Pianists: Caroline Jaya-Ratnam, Sholto Kynoch, Anne Larlee, Inju Oh, Sergey Rybin, François Salignat, James Southhall

The Jury:
Nicholas Payne (Chairman)
Dame Josephine Barstow
Valerie Beale
Richard Jackson
Graham Johnson
Elaine Padmore
Christopher Raeburn

Wednesday 23 April 2008
Wigmore Hall, London

Firstly, I must apologise for being unable to attend the Final of this year’s Kathleen Ferrier Award (I shall be giving a talk about “Singers of Handel”) and I shall comment on only some of the participants of this Semi-Final.

The eleven singers formed a disparate group, with the female sex to the fore as usual, widely ranging from the how-did-they-get-this-far, through the good, worthy and satisfying (the majority), to the more impressive. I have written this review before knowing who the Finalists will be but shall supply the names at the end.

Two contrasting baritones were heard. Derek Welton (25), who won the 2007 Handel Singing Competition, began with the Toreador’s Song, an aria on which I would never judge a singer. “Ich habe genung” (Bach’s Cantata 82) found him in more focused voice, as did ‘Whither must I wander’ from Vaughan Williams’s “Songs of Travel”, sung with touching simplicity. Alexander Robin Baker, at 22 the youngest competitor, as he was last year, has notably improved since his 2007 Semi-Final offering, although I feel he is for the future rather than the present: the potential is surely there. He would seem to be, at this promising moment, a singer of lightish operatic roles and of songs, and it was in another VW piece, the rurally nostalgic “Silent Noon”, that he gave the most pleasure.

Of the two tenors, Adrian Ward (25) sang with attractive lightish tone. I am always struck by a singer’s sensitivity, and in ‘En fermant les yeux’ (“Manon”) he produced more of it than many ‘big names’ that I have heard. In Schubert’s “Im Frühling” he was fresh-toned and effervescent. Ben Johnson, at 24, was one who greatly impressed me. His programme was well chosen, thoughtfully planned. Accurately declaiming ‘Deposuit’ (Bach’s “Magnificat”), he immediately made a mark. In contrast, he followed it with Schubert’s “Vor meiner Wiege”, a numbingly sad song in which the poet thinks of his dead mother, sung by Johnson on a fine, smooth line, inward, hushed and mesmerising. Have I heard it sung better? My memory says “No”. “Un’aura amorosa” showed him at home in Mozartean gracefulness, contrasting with the airy “Paganini”, a little Poulenc piece. I did not see Johnson’s Tom Rakewell in “The Rake’s Progress”, but his performance of Tom’s ‘Here I stand’, clearly enunciated without preciosity, was a fine conclusion to his selection. If Justice roams through the world of music, this young tenor should have a successful career.

The firmly produced tones of Charlotte Tetley (28) were pleasing; a touch more variation would not have come amiss. She was the only mezzo, but I want to mention three sopranos. Eliana Pretorian (27), Romanian-born, showed an attractive light voice, neatly and nimbly used. She has sung Zerlina in “Don Giovanni” and it is in similar roles that she should do well: in Graziella Sciutti territory in fact.

Ida Falk Winland (25) from Sweden brought a full, rich and focused tone, such as two earlier sopranos had failed to deliver. Its steadiness was a boon in itself. ‘Je suis encore’ (“Manon”) displayed a feeling for character, while a telling touch of introverted gentleness graced an excerpt, ‘Det Enda’, from Nystroem’s “Sinfonia del Mare”, before she launched into the brilliance of ‘Da tempeste’ from Handel’s “Guilio Cesare”. I want to hear more of her. Also firmly focused tonally was Elizabeth Donavan (28), the last entrant, whose voice may develop into a full lirico-spinto. It has a smoothness that enabled her to ease through the elegant lines of ‘Oh! quante volte’ (“Capuleti e I Montecchi”), and although she did not venture into coloratura-land she did produce enough flexibility for Bach’s ‘Blute nur’.

Judging without hearing the final is an incomplete exercise, but my favourite, based solely on this round and with more than a respectful nod towards those last two ladies, would be Ben Johnson.

Since writing those comments, I now know that the Finalists will be Alexander Robin Baker, Elizabeth Donovan, Ben Johnson, Adrian Ward, Derek Welton and Ida Falk Winland. I concur with four of those selections and would not argue with the other two. Unusually, this year the men outnumber their female colleagues/competitors in the Final. Ben Johnson remains my choice, but I think it will be Elizabeth Donovan who triumphs. In 2002, Jonathan Lemalu was joint winner with Karen Cargill, but a man has not won outright since Garry Magee rightly won way back in 1995.

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