Written by: John T. Hughes
Tuesday 24 & Friday 27 April 2007
Wigmore Hall, London
There was a preponderance of sopranos and baritones among the eleven competitors who reached the semi-final of this year’s Kathleen Ferrier Awards. One mezzo and one tenor were the “intruders”.
One knows from experience of competitions that someone whom one expected to be successful (or reasonably so) will be rejected. It proved to be the case on this occasion. For me the best of the male singers was the baritone Julian Hubbard, a high baritone whose voice moved easily through “Revenge Timotheus cries”, which he followed with a delicate “An den Mond”, one of the best pieces of singing of the afternoon. He gave an intense rendering of Finzi’s “The clock of the hours” and ended with a vital performances of “Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro” (“Le nozze di Figaro”). I should love to hear the judges’ reasoning for his omission. They, by the way, Dame Janet Baker, Sheila Armstrong, Nicholas Riddle, Russell Smythe and Roger Vignoles.
Here are my comments on the six who advanced to the Final. Anna Leese, whose full, focused tone is rather hard (sounding more so in the Wigmore Hall than at Covent Garden), has already been heard at the Royal Opera as Musetta and the First Lady, causing some to wonder why she was in this competition. Certainly a First Prize of £10,000.00 is worth winning. She produced some soft touches in “O silver moon”, sung in Czech, and Brahms’s “In stille Nacht” was given a pleasingly hushed performance. Three young ladies sitting behind me said that she had failed to touch them.
Laura Mitchell began with a smoothly caressed “Estrellita” by Ponce. (How often has that been sung at the Ferrier Award?) It seemed unusual but not unacceptable, especially as Mitchell embraced it lovingly. Her shining soprano, with its rapid, high vibrato, was attractive in a nicely phrased “Dove sono”, but no trill. Rachmaninov’s “How fair this spot” was also well shaped. Mitchell was the first of five singers in the second half, all of whom were chosen for the Final. Coincidence?
The baritone Benedict Nelson’s tone was hard and rather backwardly placed, especially in the lowest third, but not unpleasant. He well conveyed Count Almaviva’s less-than-charitable feelings in the ‘Figaro’ aria that Hubbard sang. Tosti’s “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra” needed a smoother line and a greater feeling of longing.
The vibrant soprano of Katherine Broderick is a voice of high quality. A lovely performance of ”S’ei non mi amar” from Handel’s “Tamerlano” set her off well. Wolf’s “Kennst du das Land” received a passionate but well controlled interpretation, Broderick singing with real emotion, as she did in “Pleurez, mes yeux” from Massenet’s “Le Cid”, to which she brought a fine outpouring of sound. The sole mezzo, Caryl Hughes, had a bite in her tone in Handel’s “Svegliatevi nel core”, produced a well poised high note in Obradors’s “Del cabello más sutil” and sang his “El vito” with élan.
The sixth of the chosen half-dozen was also Welsh. Samuel Evans was listed as a bass-baritone, but there was no bass. He caressed Fauré’s “Les berceaux” but was very dry of voice in an aria from “St Matthew Passion”, in which bottom notes were weak and unresonant. (Was he recovering from a cold?) The “Papagena! Papagena” aria lay in the middle of his voice, gaining from the extra resonance. His “The clock of the hours” was as intense and gripping as Hubbard’s had been.
On the other four contestants I shall make brief comments.
George von Bergen gave a well shaded “None but the lonely heart”, but his voice lost richness and steadiness under pressure. Michelle Foster seemed even more nervous than the others, beginning in fluttery and unfocused voice. Her tone was subject to shrillness on loud notes. Alexander Robin Baker, at 21 the youngest competitor, displayed a very “English” baritone, with little ring. A difficult Bach aria (“Et in spiritum sanctum” from the B minor Mass) had some suspect intonation. The aria from “Billy Budd”, however, was well interpreted, and I felt that interpretation rather than pure voice was his strength. The one tenor, John-Colyn Gyeantey, seemed to have a smallish voice in “Io già amai” (“Rodelinda”), perhaps not properly projected. The quiet opening of Schumann’s “Belsazar” did not carry well to the back of the hall, but his interpretation was thoughtful. He seemed to enjoy the rhythm of “There’s a boat” from “Porgy and Bess”.
I have heard Ferrier Semi-final with a higher overall standard.
Now to the Finals, which were held on the following Friday. Were there many differences in performance from the Semi-final? I did feel that one singer had improved significantly on his showing on Tuesday afternoon. Benedict Nelson’s voice seemed freer than it had been. In Schubert’s “Der Zwerg” he made good use of colouring as he recounted the grim story, while in Butterworth’s “Is my team ploughing” there was marked but not exaggerated differentiation between the voice of the ghost and that of the young man. Both songs revealed Nelson as an intelligent interpreter. He was also aware of the importance of legato. To Rossini’s Figaro he brought a lively personality, singing the music without cheating or fudging. One person told me that he did not like what he called too much use of the hands in the songs; it did not worry me.
The other baritone, Samuel Evans, also began his group with “Der Zwerg”, and what a noticeable difference there was. Evans’s bottom notes were grey and toneless. Indeed, his dry tone contained neither richness or ring. He did sing Albert Williams’s “Min y Mor” (By the Sea) with some sensitivity. He needs a good teacher to free the voice from throaty imprisonment.
In the order of appearance, Evans followed Laura Mitchell, whose voice I liked, though the friend who was with me considered it to be brittle. There was little variety in her timbre, but she sang “Silent Noon” and two Rodrigo songs attractively.
The third singer in the first part was New Zealand’s Anna Leese, again sounding hard, even strident. Strauss’s “Schlagende Herzen” was lively; Micaëla’s aria from “Carmen” was not introspective enough, yet she showed in Falla’s “Nana” that she could sing quietly. If only she had made more use of that quality elsewhere…
In the second half, again with the baritone (Nelson) sandwiched between two ladies, we heard first Katherine Broderick, whose clean coloratura in “Come scoglio” was admirable, as was the accuracy of her vocal leaps. In a different vein, Wolf’s “Phänomen” received a rapt and thoughtful reading, and she brought variety to Bizet’s “La coccinelle”. Gurney’s “Sleep” was delightfully sung with much feeling, the large voice scaled down to intimate proportions, as, indeed, it had been in the other songs. She finished with an exultant “Dich teure Halle”, which showed the voice in full glory. (She and Nelson will be singing in British Youth Opera’s “Albert Herring” at London’s Peacock Theatre in September.)
The final competitor was Caryl Hughes, who sang the divisions of “Parto, parto” (“La clemenza di Tito”) skilfully. Two Grieg songs found her at home in the idiom. Her programme had been changed from that printed, and I did not pick up the corrected list beforehand, thus did not know of the changes. Two Frank Bridge songs were included, but she had sung nearly two lines of “Thy hand in mine” before I recognized the language. Her vocal quality was agreeable.
We did not stay to hear the result, and I wrote the above (as far as the Caryl Hughes reference) before receiving a phone call from a friend to tell me that Katherine Broderick had been awarded First Prize, with Benedict Nelson second, a result with which I heartily concur. Apparently, Dame Janet Baker, in her comments, made the point that Nelson sang so much better in the Final than in the Semi-final. The Song Prize was won by Laura Mitchell for “Silent Noon”. The Accompanist’s Prize went to Joseph Middleton, who played for Caryl Hughes. I wish them all a successful future.