The next competition will occur in January 2013, and this varied recital featured the three main prize winners from 2010, demonstrating their talents in a range of contrasting idioms and genres.
Established by Dr Veronica Dunne, Ireland’s ‘Grande Dame’ of singing, the Competition is designed to give young Irish singers the opportunity to complete on an international platform; it is, however, open to other nationals who are studying in the UK, and in this recital the Irish tenor Dean Power (3rd prize in 2010) was partnered by two South African sopranos, Pumeza Matshikiza and Sarah-Jane Brandon (1st and 2nd prize respectively).
We began with lieder: five songs from Schumann’s Myrthen Op.25, which the composer presented to his wife, Clara, as a wedding present. There was certainly much passion in the opening ‘Widmung’ (‘Dedication’), performed by Pumeza Matshikiza with ardent intensity; hers is a distinctive timbre, slightly burnished of tone and richly textured. Matshikiza certainly made an immediate impact on the audience; but, I found her undoubtedly striking voice slightly insistent, even overwhelming, in the intimate venue, and would have welcomed a little more dynamic ‘light and shade’. ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (‘You are like a flower’) was more poised, but again sensuous passion threatened to outweigh the innocence of the image of the beloved, ‘like a flower/ So sweet and fair and pure’.
A more delicate charm was conjured by Sarah-Jane Brandon in ‘Der Nussbaum’ (‘The walnut tree’); a gentle pianissimo conveyed the whispering of the blossoms and a well-judged rubato suggested the tentative expectancy of the young maiden dreamily listening to rustling tree, yearning and hoping for love. Brandon sustained and projected the melody in ‘Lied der Suleika’ (‘Suleika’s song’), although both songs would have benefited from a few more consonants.
Although a little stiff of manner, Dean Power showed much sensitivity to the text in ‘Die Lotusblume’ (‘The lotus flower’), tenderly shaping the closing image as “sie freundlich/ Ihr frommes Blumengesicht” (“she gladly unveils/ Her innocent flower-like face”). And, there was thoughtful phrasing from both singers in Power’s duet with Matshikiza, ‘In der Nacht’ (‘In the night’).
An operatic sequence followed, beginning with a magisterial ‘Come Scoglio’ from Brandon, demonstrating even tone throughout her range, a particular animation in the upper register, and an ability to negotiate the awkward leaps with sureness. We stayed with Così for Power’s rendering of ‘Tradito, schernito’: the recitative was intelligently delivered and again Power revealed a good sense of melodic line, but his tone is rather unyielding, at times sounding somewhat strained and taut. This was more of a problem in ‘Ecco ridento in cielo’ (from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia) which lacked an Italianate gleam and was rather rushed. Matshikiza was an impassioned, rapt Mimi in ‘Si. Mi chiamano Mimi’, and although her intonation was not always secure, her rich forte clearly won the audience’s heart. Most impressive of the operatic selection was Brandon’s tightly controlled Willow Song, ‘Piangea cantando’ (from Verdi’s Otello), in which the soprano demonstrated evenness of tone and used a range of vocal colours to convey the drama and emotion of the scene.
With a change of pianist — Dearbhla Collins now taking over from the first-half accompanist, Mairéad Hurley — Brandon began the second half of the recital with Richard Strauss’s Four Songs Op.27. These offered her much opportunity to exploit her warm, full tone; the recurring refrain of ‘Ruhe, mein Seele!’ (‘Calm, My Heart!’) built to a satisfying climax, while ‘Morgen!’ (‘Morning!’) was more rapturously serene. Matshikiza followed with three songs by Debussy; her vibrant lyricism was perfectly suited to ‘Nuit d’étoiles’ (‘Starry night’), and in ‘Beau Soir’ (‘Beautiful evening’) the soprano’s intimate composure conveyed the mood of dreamy serenity.
Having been awarded the Dermot Troy prize for Best Irish Singer in 2010, it was left to Power introduce a distinctly Irish flavour into the proceedings, with performances of three twentieth-century songs, beginning with Bernadette Marmion’s ‘When you are old’. Power was more relaxed here, and in Philip Martin’s ‘Be still as you are beautiful’; his characterful performance of ‘The Fiddler of Dooney’ by Hamilton Harty revealed Power to be at ease with the simple folk style, and capable of communicating the energy and vitality of the idiom.
The romantic lyricism and easy melodic charm of three songs by Roger Quilter brought the evening to a satisfying close.
Click here for a photo gallery of the participants.