Guildhall School of Music and Drama Gold Medal 2009

Derek Welton (baritone) with Marek Ruszczynski (piano)
A Shropshire Lad – Loveliest of trees; When I was one-and-twenty; Look not in my eyes; Think no more, lad; The lads in their hundreds; Is my team ploughing?

Susana Gaspar (soprano) with Maite Aguirre Quiñonero (piano)
Chanson triste
Ganymed, Op.19/3
An den Mond, Op.57/3
Des Knaben Wunderhorn – Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?
Spring waters, Op.14/11

Jonathan Sells (baritone) with Annabel Thwaite (piano)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht; Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer;Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz

Gary Griffiths (baritone) with Nico de Villiers (piano)
An die Leier, Op. 56/1; Der Musensohn, Op. 92/1
A Shropshire Lad – Is my team ploughing?
A vuchella
Welsh Traditional

Derek Welton
Cantata, BWV159
St John Passion, BWV245 – Es ist vollbracht
Des Knaben Wunderhorn – Nicht wiedersehen!
Falstaff – È sogno? O realtà?

Susana Gaspar
Pagliacci – Qual fiamma avea nel guardo! … Stridono lassù
Vier letzte Lieder – Beim Schlafengehen
Turandot – Signore ascolta
Roméo et Juliette – Je veux vivre

Jonathan Sells
Don Giovanni – Fin ch’han dal vino
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – Ging heut’ morgen uber’s Feld
Faust – Avant de quitter ces lieux
La Cenerentola – Come un’ape ne’giorni d’aprile

Gary Griffiths
Le nozze di Figaro – Hai già vinta la causa…..Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro
Billy Budd – Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray
Carmen – Votre toast, je peux vous le render

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
David Angus

Jonathan Vaughan (chairman)
David Angus
Neil Fisher
Bryn Terfel
Janice Watson

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 5 May, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Each year the Guildhall School of Music and Drama stages a party. It isn’t private but it is a family affair. There is no doubt, however, of the artistic quality of the music-making, of the seriousness of the endeavour or the accomplishment of both soloists and orchestral players.

In the first half competitors offer a short recital programme. I missed Derek Welton’s performance with Marek Ruszczynski of six songs from George Butterworth’s settings of “A Shropshire Lad”. Jonathan Sells’s singing of three of Mahler’s ‘Wayfarer’ songs showed off his strengths as a Lieder singer. The fast chatter of the words in ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ was crystal-clear; the high tessitura suiting the range of Sells’s baritone, with upward leaps into the head-voice being smoothly negotiated, whilst ably deploying his span of available colours with poetic imagination: the contented sweetness which is briefly promised in ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ swiftly dissolved into a pungent nihilism. His accompanist, Annabel Thwaite, proved herself communicative in the essence of Mahler’s style here, drawing maximum foreboding from the funeral-march rhythms and piquancy for the major-minor oscillations. This was an enthralling performance.

The other two singers opted for a mixed repertoire. Susana Gaspar seemed most at home in Duparc’s “Chanson triste”, where her command of legato allowed her to shape the evolving melody and incorporate soft, bewitching high notes into the line. Two Schubert songs were rather stolidly accompanied by Maite Aguirre Quiñonero – the setting of “Ganymed” has always seemed to miss the essence of Goethe’s poem with its pedestrian gait. The central trills announced an increase in momentum and Gaspar’s final entry, starting pp with a crescendo, was a memorable moment but ecstatic union with Zeus was only hinted at.

Gaspar’s Mahler was superficial compared with Sells’s. She approached a “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” setting akin to an operatic actress than a sober recitalist. By the end of her programme one was also beginning to notice some slightly raw intonation on stressed note at the top of her range.

It was immediately evident that Gary Griffiths has a voice of operatic dimensions. The declamatory phrases in “An die Leier” were thrown out confidently and paralleled them with smooth phrasing of the lyrical passages. “Der Musensohn”, normally a joyful culmination of a recital programme, fared less well – the singer’s upright military bearing, with the notes punched out like the orders of an NCO, contradicted the very ethos of the piece.

Butterworth’s ‘Is my team ploughing?’, with its skeletal accompaniment, throws the burden of interpretation onto the singer. Eloquently Griffiths explored the possibilities of its dialogue between both sides of the grave, not content with mere differentiation between corporeal and ghostly. The characters’ reactions to the ongoing conversation were subtly enacted and the ghost’s questioning about the lads playing football was given a naïve, boyish feel, whilst his enquiry about his girl’s happiness had a contrasted tone of tenderness and regret. In the replies of the ‘man alive’ there was first an embarrassed impatience at the questioning, then a contented feeling of conscience in the final stanza.

Griffiths took a risk with his choice of Tosti, and Welsh folksong. His performance of the largely unaccompanied “Myfanwy” was not only sincere and endearing; it also bore witness to his good breath control. He struggled to find the authentic style for Tosti’s “A vuchella” but the tone eventually filled out with Italianate warmth.

Welton’s voice was under-powered for opera. Even if Ford’s Monologue was extrovertly performed, with vivid enactment of Ford’s pomposity, confusion, feigned indifference and defiance, the voice lacked ring. ‘Es ist vollbracht’, delivered without romantism, was outclassed in terms of eloquence by the (un-named) oboist. Welton failed to breathe much life into Mahler’s ‘Nicht wiedersehen!’.

Gaspar fulfilled the expectations aroused by her recital programme. We heard a “Pagliacci” ‘Ballata’ brimming over with high spirits as Nedda imagined escape into a world of freedom and spontaneity. Her Liu was in the best traditions of the interpreters of that rewarding lyric-soprano role, with portamento carefully restrained. Finally, her credentials as a soprano leggero were signposted in Juliette’s waltz: the aria was not rushed, the tone not glassy: the seductive side of Juliette was unusually to the fore.

Sells completed his account of “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” with the upper reaches of his baryton matin firmly in control. The precise articulation of words which had been evident in recital recurred within the bravura of the ‘Champagne aria’ but this was a lightweight Don Giovanni. Warmth of familial devotion and belligerent resolution in the different sections of Valentin’s aria were conveyed by his ability to colour his tone but up to this point this had been a run-of-the-mill programme. Then came a party-piece absolutely in tune with the occasion, an utterly riotous rendering of Dandini’s grandiose ‘simile’ aria – its pretentious sentiments underlined by extravagant physical movements, invisible characters addressed in mime and the fioriture in the fast section not merely accurate but meaningful too.

The Count’s aria was given by Griffiths in a performance more correct than inspiring: appoggiaturas were in all the right places but characterisation was unvaried. With “Billy in the Darbies” he engaged the audience as Sells had done with Mahler and it benefited from an interpretation which avoided sentimentality, emphasising his perceptiveness as well as his naïveté. Griffiths was a fraction short in the low register in the Toreador’s Song but there was ample tone elsewhere.

The singers were well supported by a Guildhall Symphony Orchestra of manifold talents, and to whom none of this music was routine. David Angus got the studnets to play with an endearing freshness – a feathery lightness in Juliette’s waltz and an ebullience in the Toreador’s song as if encountering it for the first time.

Bryn Terfel, 1989 winner of the Gold Medal, said in announcing the results, he would face stiff competition twenty years later, so great are the strides made in the intervening years in the mastery of languages and in repertoire planning by the students (and their teachers, whom he brought into the equation of compliments).

The Accompanist’s Prize was awarded to Marek Ruszczynski, the Glass Trophy for Runners-Up to Jonathan Sells and the Gold Medal to Gary Griffiths.

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