Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2011 – Final

Written by: Richard Nicholson

Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano) with Gamal Khamis (piano)

Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118
L’incoronazione di Poppea – Addio Roma
Five Elizabethan Songs – Sleep
Die Kartenlegerin, Op.31/2
La Clemenza di Tito – Parto, parto ma tu ben mio

Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) with Elizabeth Burgess (piano)

St Matthew Passion, BWV244 – Mache dich, mein Herze, rein
Lerchengesang, Op.7/2
Così fan tutte – Rivolgete a lui lo squardo
8 Folk Song Arrangements – Lord! I married me a wife
Five Elizabethan Songs (The Elizas) – Sleep

Elena Sancho (soprano) with Yshani Perinpanayagam (piano)

Three Songs – Daphne
Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, Op.12/1 – My life’s delight
Cuatro madrigales amatorios – Con que la lavare
De Falla
Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas – Nana
Canciones amatorias – No lloreis ojuelos
Hamlet – A vos jeux, mes amies

Victor Sicard (baritone) with Anna Cardona (piano)

Die Zauberflöte – Papagena! Papagena! Papagena!
Des Knaben Wunderhorn – Nicht wiedersehen
Histoires naturelles – Le pintade
Earth, Air and Rain, Op.15/8 – The clock of the years
Des Knaben Wunderhorn – Scheiden und Meiden

Jonathan McGovern (baritone) with Timothy End (piano)

Der Einsame, D800
Billy Budd – Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray
V molchan’ji nochi tajnoj, Op.4/3
Epitaph in Old Mode
Roméo et Juliette – Mab, la reine des mensonges

Justina Gringyte (mezzo-soprano) and Sergey Rybin (piano)

I Capuleti e i Montecchi – Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio
O liebliche Wangen, Op.47/4

Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118
The Tsar’s Bride – Liubasha’s aria
Cabaret Songs – Funeral blues

The Jury:
Sir Brian McMaster CBE (Chairman)
Christopher Glynn
Martyn Hill
Janice Watson
Joan Rodgers CBE

Wigmore Hall, London
Friday 29 April 2011

Past prizewinners in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards include many luminaries of the British vocal scene and, even if the title seems to distance this annual event from the competitive element, it is indeed targeted by hundreds of gifted singer entrants and fiercely contested. Despite the absence of a tenor or bass from the Final, the adjudicators’ earlier deliberations had the effect of producing a heterogeneous group of finalists: a coloratura soprano and a dramatic mezzo, to go with the usual lyric baritones and a lyric mezzo.

The desire to win the monetary prizes and gain the prestige which succeeding former illustrious winners brings must have an impact on singer’s strategic programming. Do you try to impress by showcasing your strength, as Elena Sancho did in programming a long operatic scena for coloratura or Victor Sicard did by building his programme around two Mahler songs? Do you grab the audience immediately by the scruff of the neck with a startlingly dramatic opening interpretation (Kitty Whately) or start softly and soberly, building up thereafter to end in lively high spirits (Jonathan McGovern)? And of course there is that constant dilemma of how to balance voice and interpretation. Perhaps even somewhere at the back of the contestants’ minds is a duty to maintain some sort of link with the dedicatee herself and her repertoire.

The conditions for entry to each round prevent unlimited flexibility. Those for the final require the inclusion of at least one English song and the establishment of a proper balance between opera and song. Kitty Whately seemed to have fulfilled the requirement for relationship between opera and song to the letter. Her “Gretchen am Spinnrade” was enthralling, the narrative carried forward on accentuated and carefully coloured key words, the musical momentum to each of the two climaxes created by a tautly strung line. In Schumann’s “Fortune-teller”, another subjective song but one with a quite different and comic atmosphere, she identified herself with the girl briefly freed from the influence of her domineering mother and given time to dream of life with various suitors, only to suffer disillusionment from the cards. The combination of facial expression and vocal projection made for an entertaining, humorous vignette, the ingenuous girl’s mood passing through eagerness, mischief and puzzlement to eventual despair: an excessively knowing performance.

Gurney’s “Sleep” showed Whately’s ability to concentrate on melodic continuity, crowned by a powerful climax. As for her opera items, she squeezed every drop of sorrow out of Ottavia’s lament at her banishment from Rome, while remaining on the right side of royal dignity. Unfortunately her rondo from “La Clemenza di Tito”, a competition favourite, found her tone coarsening and the final section was taken too fast, losing its classical poise.

Marcus Farnsworth, already a winner of Wigmore Hall’s own song competition in 2009, chose to begin with Bach. Much of the melodic content of the concluding bass aria from the “St Matthew Passion” lay in a slightly weak patch in the centre of Farnsworth’s voice. His minor discomfort in having to reach upwards in the phrase ‘Ich will Jesum selbst begraben’ was another minor drawback. Conversely the tessitura of Brahms’s “Lerchengesang” was ideal for him to demonstrate his ability in producing fluid tone when singing softly at the top of the voice.

Farnsworth gave himself the unenviable task of making Guglielmo’s original aria from “Cosi fan tutte” viable. This bombastic piece, full of classical allusions, was accompanied by a lot of posing, eyebrow raising, boastful puffing out of the chest and superior finger-pointing; and given that it isn’t set to very interesting music it outstayed its welcome despite the singer’s best efforts. To end his programme he also was lured, as had been his predecessor, by Gurney’s sublime setting of John Fletcher’s “Sleep”. There was hardly the thickness of a cigarette paper between their interpretations, both managing its long phrases and shaping the overall structure like well-schooled artists.

Elena Sancho offered two English songs, though the all-important words in Walton’s “Daphne” were difficult to decipher. Quilter’s “My life’s delight” suffered less from language problems, its urgent pleading communicated through Sancho’s restless exuberance in this fast flowing music (seconded by her partner Yshani Perinpanayagam, an impressive accompanist throughout their song selections). The three Spanish songs seemed to be over-loading the programme in favour of Art-Song but the vocal control heard, the easy production of high notes and the agility of movement turned out to be appetizers for Ophelia’s Mad Scene. Not merely did her comprehensive vocal trickery provide promise of a career to come as a coloratura soprano, but it was accompanied by a convincing impersonation of Ophelia’s disturbed state of mind in her delivery of the confused passages. This was a real tour de force and Natalie Dessay sprang to mind.

Sancho’s operatic contribution was as long as her five songs put together, so the balance criterion was fulfilled in her case but Victor Sicard, who devoted little more than three minutes to opera in his performance of Papageno’s suicide aria (amusingly sung and acted) slipped by. His two songs of parting from Mahler’s early “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” collection were cleverly placed, the tragic ‘Nicht wiedersehen’ first, the ebullient ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ wrapping-up his programme on a high note. In the former he lacked the necessary piquancy of voice to support the nagging harmonies which his accompanist Anna Cardona was generating from the keyboard (along with the crushing weight of loss which Mahler depicts in the accompaniment). Sicard made it sound like an everyday disappointment in love. In the less elusive style of ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ his singing was more open and fresh, communicating with broad brush strokes, but also bringing out details with subtle rubato. His commentary on the guinea-fowl in ‘Le pintade’ was predictably idiomatic, accompanied by much physicality.

Jonathan McGovern’s strategy was to move from the restrained to the extrovert. He embarked with largely soft, light and restrained singing of Schubert’s “Der Einsame” (the hermit expressing complete contentment with his lot); the clarity of his German was impressive. His singing of the monologue of the condemned Billy Budd was even better. Whether it be his reflective musings or the random thoughts about his execution in his impulsive innocence, McGovern captured Billy’s endearing simple-mindedness and evoked sympathy for the character without lapsing into sentimentality.

He raised the emotional temperature with Rachmaninov’s “V molchan’ji nochi tajnoj” (In the silence of the sleepy night). Gurney’s “Epitaph in Old Mode” was an adventurous and relatively obscure choice of English song. It has a particularly challenging phrase with a musical antithesis from fortissimo to ppp which McGovern surmounted expertly. His high baritone was ideally suited by Mercutio’s ballad and meant a return to the boyish grin with which he began.

Reading that Justina Gringyte is about to join the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House should have alerted me that this would be a heavier voice than her opponents. As it was she revealed a true heavyweight mezzo in Romeo’s first act aria from Bellini’s version of family feuds in Verona, without booming low notes but with a thrilling upper extension, both power and high notes even more evident in the cabaletta. I cannot recall hearing a bigger voice at Wigmore Hall. Her Brahms was one-dimensional, her “Gretchen am Spinnrade” far less based on the words than Whately’s. What was listed as Liubasha’s aria from “Th Tsar’s Bride”, actually a short but intense arioso, was well suited to her dark timbre, while she took no prisoners in her English song “Stop all the clocks”.

First Prize: Kitty Whately
Second Prize: Jonathan McGovern
Song Prize: Marcus Farnsworth
Accompanist’s Prize: Timothy End

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