Written by: Richard Nicholson
The Guildhall School’s Gold Medal Competition
Thursday, 3 May 2007
Barbican Hall, London
Sophie Angebault (soprano)
Sara Gonzalez Saavedra (mezzo-soprano)
Benedict Nelson (baritone)
Katherine Broderick (soprano)
Damian Cramer (Chairman)
Dame Josephine Barstow
Sir John Tusa
Prestigious singing competitions nowadays almost guarantee high quality. The voices are opulent, the style appropriate to the period and nationality of the music, the appreciation of the texts and the literary background informed and sensitive.
The Gold Medal of the Guildhall School is not exclusively a competition for singers (it alternates annually between singers and instrumentalists) and it is an internal affair but in this year’s renewal it was the turn of the voices and the concert was no exception to the principle stated above. Surely it was not ever thus? Could there always have been this plethora of top-class young voices or was there a time when they were fewer and vocal competitions were peopled by modestly gifted novices, from whom the really singular talents stood out unmistakably. Just as, for example, in the 1950s only a couple of tenors could do justice to Rossini’s florid writing, whereas now I could name a score who command the technique to deliver in these roles in the leading opera houses of the world.
The atmosphere was unusual, as this was a family event, attended by fellow students and, presumably, relatives, to whom the competitors were already familiar. Partisanship was rife, with the arrival of competitors being greeted by whooping, hollering and whistling worthy of an American golf tournament. One perhaps less satisfactory element was the fact that two of the competitors had only days before finished first and second in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards, and that they had sung there some of the same pieces as they were to offer at this contest.
All four finalists in the competition were truly exceptional (as were the accompanists and the orchestral players). I hope there is room in the world’s opera house and concert halls for each of them to make the rewarding careers that their talents deserve.
First up was Sophie Angebault,a vivacious French soprano. Her piano-accompanied programme was clearly designed to show off her range. She began with the exuberant uncomplicated Hahn song “Le Printemps”, followed by the all-embracing “La Vie Antérieure” of Duparc, in which she deployed her eloquent low register, floated pianissimo high notes and piled into fortissimos. The latter betrayed the shortcoming of a rather febrile, blowsy tone, no doubt exacerbated by nervousness. The drama of her first Pfitzner song “Schwill an mein Strom”, with its surging, plunging line, was less suited to her current vocal state than the diatonic section of the second “Denn unsere Liebe hat zu heiss geflammt”, where her warm middle register came into its own. The highlight of Angebault’s programme was ‘J’ai deux amants’, the song of the anonymous heroine of Messager’s “L’amour masqué” (anonymous in the sense that she and the hero are listed merely as ‘Elle’ and ‘Lui’). The soprano exults in her ability to have two simultaneous protecteurs without arousing suspicion in either. Angebault constructed a corridor between the piano and the front of the stage, in which she circulated as she, now coyly, now confidentially, now brazenly, communicated with an audience which revelled in the comedy and awarded her tumultuous acclaim. The Rachmaninov song which ended he recital was inevitably an anti-climax.
Sara Gonzalez Saavedra from the Canary Islands chose a programme with a real heavyweight piece at the start: “Banquo’s Buried”, a ten-minute scena using the words of Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene by the Australian composer Alison Bauld. She had no difficulty in articulating the English words. Her mezzo-soprano is a formidable instrument, with high notes which were more secure than those of her predecessor. She enacted the perverse character’s soliloquy with unrelenting dramatic involvement and limitless reserves of vocal power. She then showed sympathy with a very different sort of musical style in Howells’s “King David”, whose ending glowed with tranquility.
At the other extreme was 23-year-old Benedict Nelson, a light baritone who was under-powered for the declamation of Schubert’s “Auf der Bruck” but who held the audience riveted throughout Butterworth’s “Is my team ploughing?” He assumed two completely different voices, bluff and earthy for the living man, and a finely controlled other-worldly head voice for his dead interlocutor. I welcomed his final choice of the outgoing Tosti song “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra”, the sort of music frowned on in more fastidious competitions; unfortunately it needs a bigger voice to make its full impact.
When a member of the audience in the row in front emitted a piercing cry of “Brava” at the emergence onto the platform of soprano Katherine Broderick, it was evident that something outstanding was expected. Her programme comprised the four Mignon songs by Hugo Wolf, an exalted choice for a young singer. She settled into the character more convincingly with each song that passed. If there was little variation of tone in “Heiss mich nicht reden”, by the time she reached “So lasst mich scheinen” she was painting the suppliant with some success, while the placing of “Kennst du das Land” as last of the sequence played to her strength, the vulnerability of the girl being replaced in each verse by lustrous tone as she overflowed with longing for Italy, twice as powerfully in the final verse.
The admirable Guildhall Orchestra played the Prelude to Act Three of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” before the contestants returned to the stage for their orchestrally-accompanied programmes. Stephen Barlow was an inspiring conductor throughout. Angebault’s programme was original but disjointed, once again presumably in the desire to display her versatility. She was voluptuous in Ravel’s ‘Asie’ from “Shéhérazade” and perpetually animated in Walton’s “Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table”, in which her English words were admirably clear but I doubt whether her voice will ever lend itself to Puccini, even in the role of Manon Lescaut.
Saavedra showcased Spanish zarzuela with Rosa’s Romanza from Serrano’s “Los Claveles”. The mixture of romantic rapture and potent rancour which the character undergoes was well within her vocal and interpretative compass. In the French mezzo repertoire (Dalila) and Italian (‘O mio Fernando’) she maintained impressively high standards. The audience rose to her thrilling cabaletta in the Donizetti, after being imperiously discouraged from applauding at the end of the cavatina.
Most of the audience seemed “in the know” about the last two performers and that, despite the presence of their gifted predecessors, this was going to be a two-horse race. Benedict Nelson proved himself a born actor in his projection of the Count’s aria from “Le nozze di Figaro” before he came to his show-stopper, the entrance aria of Rossini’s Figaro (“The Barber of Seville”). It takes a lot to get me worked up about a performance of this hackneyed piece but Nelson offered a fresh, uproarious, uninhibited view of it, free of the conventions imposed on it by other singers.
Katherine Broderick seemed to know no fear. The wide range and florid passagework of ‘Come scoglio’ constituted her opening shot. This was Fiordiligi on a human scale, without the dark, chesty noises which sopranos normally use to characterise her peremptory dismissal of Ferrando’s first approach. Were this not demanding enough, she now graduated to ‘Casta diva’. This was impressive for the characterisation of the Priestess as a humble worshipper as much as for the technical proficiency. I was reminded of the great nineteenth-century prima donna Lilli Lehmann, equally adept in Mozart and as Norma and a commanding Brünnhilde, which is surely where the amazingly only-24-year-old Broderick is heading. Her final piece was, appropriately enough, the ‘Hallenarie’ from Tannhäuser. It crowned her triumph and our evening.
While we waited for the judges to end their deliberations, the Guildhall Chorus, with the orchestra, showed its considerable mettle in a performance of the ‘Polovtsian Dances’ from Borodin’s “Prince Igor”, conducted by Linnhe Robertson.
Eventually the jury returned, to announce that the winner of the Accompanist Prize was Annabel Thwaite, who had shown wit and power in accompanying Sophie Angebault, that the runner-up was Benedict Nelson and that the Gold Medal was to be awarded to Katherine Broderick.