Nicola Hughes (soprano) with William Vann (piano)
Angela Bic (soprano) with Robin Davis (piano)
April Fredrick (soprano) with William Vann (piano)
Nicholas Merryweather (baritone) with Katrine Reimers (piano)
Monica Bancoş (soprano) with Gary Matthewman (piano)
Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano) with Joseph Middleton (piano)
Derek Welton (baritone) with Bojana Dimković (piano)
Ruby Hughes (soprano) with Gary Matthewman (piano)
Anna Devin (soprano) with Annabel Thwaite (piano)
Gerard Collett (baritone) with Simon Over (piano)
Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano) with Gary Matthewman (piano)
Caroline Macphie (soprano) with Joseph Middleton (piano)
Sir John Tooley (Chairman)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 22 April, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
This was something of an endurance test for the audience, lasting four hours with only a twenty-minute break and not helped by most of the competitors deciding to cram as much music as possible into their maximum 20-minute programme allowance.
The field was lacking either a tenor or a bass. Eight sopranos out of twelve made for uniformity and the event was not as rewarding as past competitions. Variety came from the repertoire chosen by each singer. The rubric requires a piece from an oratorio or a concert work, an operatic aria and a song written since 1800. The judges are expected to take the wisdom of the competitor’s choice and range of material into consideration in their decision-making.
Mozart was a popular choice to demonstrate coloratura skills among the sopranos. Nicola Hughes as a lyric-soprano seemed likely to be more suited to it than the lyrico-spinto Sarah-Jane Brandon but her divisions were mechanical, her rapid runs aspirated, while Brandon at least directed attention to a powerful fortissimo ending, a case of playing to her strength. Anna Devin’s choice was the equally difficult ‘Et incarnatus est’ (Mass in C minor, K427). The emphasis here was on the high notes, which she certainly possesses and which were incorporated in impressive breath control, though they could not escape a pronounced tremolo. April Fredrick went for the stratospheric heights of ‘Vorrei, spiegarvi, O Dio!’ but the shrill noises she made on the leger-lines nullified her daring in tackling the piece.
In an age short of dramatic sopranos Brandon should look forward to a decent operatic career but she had obviously studied style in Lieder and was able to bring her best attributes to bear on the climax of Liszt’s “Oh! Quand je dors”; she unleashed a veritable explosion of sound in Wolf’s “Kennst du das Land” at each of Mignon’s roars of “Dahin!” The large voice was well in control when singing softly in these songs but she was surprisingly less convincing in her operatic piece; if she had to choose a Puccini aria, Turandot might been a better choice than Doretta, whose high-lying line lost pitch.
The three baritones differed quite markedly. Nicholas Merryweather was full of vivacity and arrived already immersed in the character of the suspicious, vengeful Figaro of Act Four. The repeated metamorphosis to his serious and disciplined performance of “But who may abide”, then onto the flowing outline of Fauré’s “Les berceaux”, culminating in the dramatic story-telling of Schumann’s “Belsazar” was the best fulfilment of the condition for range shown all afternoon. Sadly, Merryweather did not reach the Final; was the voice considered too small?
Derek Welton chose the same opera but opted for the Count’s aria. This he performed straight, with no physical acting to second his strong, accurate singing. He showed himself better suited to the nuances of art-song in Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (“Rückert-Lieder”), to which he extended concentration, detailed response to the words and a confident use of head-voice. The third baritone, Gerard Collett, will probably have been disappointed in not doing himself justice. An imaginative programme foundered on the high tessitura of an excerpt from Orff’s “Carmina Burana” which took its toll in an untidy ending. Nevertheless, I would have selected him for the Final after he had shown fine control in “Wandrers Nachtlied II” and the ability to produce a web of pp sound in Gounod’s “Sérénade” which had the audience hushed, a sure sign of quality.
The sole mezzo in a competition founded in memory of a mezzo was Anna Huntley. She began with the aria from Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” that Ferrier herself famously recorded as ‘Grief for Sin’. The competition conditions here required it to be sung in the original language. She also followed a noticeable trend in including a twentieth-century song, and a demanding one in ‘Parents’ from Dominick Argento’s cycle “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf”. Both the cantabile and parlando writing were well negotiated.
Returning to the sopranos, Ruby Hughes’s selection included Messiaen’s ‘Resurrection’ (“Chants de terre et de ciel”). It released her voice’s most prominent feature, her top register, discharging the volleys of sparkling high notes with which the composer has expressed religious ecstasy. Given Hughes’s smoothness of emission in a slow aria from Handel’s “Theodora” and her vigour in Schumann’s “Aufträge”, it was surprising to find her excluded from the final six. She had the assistance of Gary Matthewman, an accompanist who, in addition to his virtuosity, knows exactly when to position himself forwards or backwards in the partnership. Of the budding accompanists competing for the MBF Accompanists’ Prize, William Vann impressed with the range of his musical sympathies and the commitment of his playing.
Angela Bic performed with Robin Davis, with whom she had already won a dual first prize in a competition in Holland. Their mutual familiarity showed in Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l’amour”, her seductive treatment of the text matched by his smooching cabaret waltz. They took exciting risks in Nedda’s song to the birds from “Pagliacci”. Her dark timbre suited the character’s smouldering eroticism which burst vividly into leaps of joy, while both of them became ever more elated in the final bars. Another singer who absorbed herself convincingly in an operatic character was the Romanian Monia Bancoş, whose ‘Il est doux, il est bon’ was both lyrical and intense. Her choice of Schoenberg’s “Galathea”, with its sweeping phrases, for her song, was astute.
Generally the competitors over-played their hands in the length of their programmes. To prove this unnecessary, the final competitor Caroline Macphie displayed all her talents in no more than fifteen minutes. Her oratorio choice, ‘How can I cherish my man in such days’ from Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time” was movingly delivered without exhibitionism in the high passages but with humanistic devotion. She showed equal understanding of the idiom of French song in Debussy’s “Le romance d’Ariel”: sympathy for the word-setting and the need for purity of tone and lyricism in the vocal line were observed. By contrast, she let herself go in portraying the girlishness of Massenet’s Manon without reservation. How right this Manon was to say “Excusez-moi” as her ebullience boiled over so uninhibitedly. Macphie must be a strong contender in the Final.
Competitors who will appear in the Final in order of performance on Friday 24 April (beginning at 6 p.m.) are Caroline Macphie, Angela Bic, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Derek Welton, Monica Bancoş and Anna Devin.