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Marcus Farnsworth
15 Sep 2009

Wigmore Hall Song Competition

‘It’s a personal choice’ / ‘Of course he won - he was the only one who sang songs’ / ‘I’ll be happy if anyone but the first one wins’ (he won) / ‘There’s only one possible choice - the third one’ (he came second)

Wigmore Hall Song Competition

Above: Marcus Farnsworth


Thus various Wigmore regulars on the outcome of the Song competition - but what can you expect? Cardiff is the same - ‘Outrageous! The Counter-tenor should have won’ / ‘She only won because she was the most polished’ / ‘The tenor ought to have won / and so on. Perhaps the first statement above is the most useful, since any judgment is going to be, and in a way it’s amazing that a jury so diverse can come to any sort of agreement at all. What was not in doubt, however, was that all of the finalists (and, indeed, many of those who did not make it that far) are very likely to have great careers ahead of them.

Marcus Farnsworth has a lovely, very light, sweet baritone voice, not unlike that of Simon Keenlyside, and his programme was both daring and reassuring - daring because he began not with a lollipop but with a very serious slice of Schubert, and reassuring because it had enough variety to please everyone. ‘Nachtstück’ is the kind of thing with which you might expect Goerne to open a recital, so Marcus did well to produce such a lovely, flowing legato at ‘Du heil’ge Nacht.’ Strauss’ ‘Gefunden’ was almost as daring, showcasing the singer’s reserves of power at the end, so it was a welcome relief that he followed it with Loewe’s ‘Hinkende Jamben,’ which got some laughs from the audience. He was perhaps at his best in the English group, showing his tenorial top notes in Butterworth’s ‘Think no more, lad’ and a smooth legato line in Britten’s arrangement of ‘The last rose of summer.’ He was eloquently accompanied by the very confident, extremely sympathetic Elizabeth Burgess, whose playing I have previously enjoyed in Oxford. Marcus won the First Prize.

The soprano Erin Morley’s programme did not appeal to me very much - it felt like too much Russian and just a nod to the great Lieder composers (no Schubert) - but then that’s a very personal remark! There’s no doubt that she has a lovely voice, very bright, forward and well focused, perhaps at this time more suited to the operatic stage than the recital platform. Rossini’s ‘La fioraia fiorentina’ showed her at her confident best, and Schumann’s ‘Liebeslied’ gave a hint of how she might develop as a recitalist. She was placed third in the final.

For me, Benedict Nelson was the most promising of the finalists, and he also had the best accompanist I heard in Gary Matthewman. Of course, one is influenced by choice of programme, and theirs seemed to me to show an excellent balance of styles and moods. At the moment, Benedict’s French is a little heavy to really catch the atmosphere of Duparc’s ‘La vie antérieure’ but his Mahler and Schumann suggested a maturity beyond that expected of someone who is only 26. ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ was a very ambitious choice, but he pulled it off well, showing a fine legato line at ‘Auf der Strasse steht ein Lindenbaum.’ Schumann’s ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ needed a little more colour and variety in the tone, but Gary’s nachspiel was finely done. Benedict came second in the final.

Sidney Outlaw has a real personality, and was probably the best communicator of the four. He was the audience favourite, but I felt he let himself down with some of his choices - ‘Erlkönig’ is simply too well known and it’s too easy to compare its performance to that of just about every great baritone, and the ‘American’ group felt like too much conforming to type. Kudos to him, though, for being the only one to actually sing something written in this millennium. I felt his baritone had not quite got the measure of the Fauré or the Duparc, but his Brahms showed much promise, especially in the darker parts of ‘Von ewiger Liebe.’ Sidney was placed fourth.

This was another testament to the power and position of the Wigmore Hall: an audience packed not only with the great and the good and the grey-haired, but with the volubly enthusiastic young, enjoyed four mini-recitals of exceptional promise, by singers chosen out of a vast pool of talent containing at least as many again who will surely go on to great things - I would single out the baritone Gerard Collett, the soprano Erica Eloff and the pianist James Bailleu, but I am sure that those who were present for all the stages will have their equally worthy choices. The Pianists’ prize was won by James Bailleu, and he and Gerard Collett won the Jean Meikle Prize for a Duo.

Melanie Eskenazi

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