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Kathleen Ferrier
02 May 2012

The Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2012

This year’s Kathleen Ferrier Awards final was both a competition and a celebration, marking as it did the centenary anniversary of the great singer’s birth.

The Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2012

Wigmore Hall, London Friday 27 April 2012

Above: Kathleen Ferrier

 

First held in 1956, following Ferrier’s tragically early death on 22 April 1952, the competition has supported many young singers in their early years of training and, since 2009, has also offered additional support to its prize winners in the form of sponsoring a series of recitals around the UK, giving these singers public platforms to develop their recital skills. Recent prize recipients have included Emma Bell, Kate Royal, Elizabeth Watts, Martene Grimson, Andrew Kennedy and Robert Murray, and many others who have gone on to win considerable international acclaim.

The demands of the competition are rigorous: both first round and semi-final must include an operatic aria and art song, and singers must show appreciation of the musical and technical characteristics of different periods and styles. The final must contain at least one song in English and present a balance between opera and song.

Natalya-3.gifNatalya Romaniw [Photo by Patrick Allen, Opera Omnia, courtesy of Hazard Chase Limited]

This year’s winner, Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw, offered a daring programme which played to her strengths — a big, richly coloured tone and a confident, mature dramatic presence. Opening with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Atchevo eta pryezhdye nye znala’ from Iolanta she exhibited a beautiful vocal lustre and a natural instinct for phrase shape, carefully modulating the dynamic expression to communicate textual meaning. Strauss’s ‘Ständchen’ showed off the glistening, exhilarating sheen of her upper notes, and its power, while the same composer’s ‘Ruhe meine seele’ demonstrated that Romaniw can sustain a centred, pleasing line in the lower register too. Jonathan Dove’s ‘Between your sheets’ was imaginative and adventurous programming, and here Romaniw adopted a more intimate tone, sensitively conveying the words. But, it was back into extrovert mode for Britten’s ‘Tell me the Truth about Love’: fortunately, she did not indulge in cabaret hyperbole, but enjoyed sharing the wit and humour of the song with the audience, in an appealing, engaging rendition which deservedly garnered the song prize for Romaniw too.

Baritone Ben McAteer and soprano Ruth Jenkins shared second prize. I felt that McAteer’s communication of the text, as he effortlessly embodied a range of characters in different dramatic and emotional situations, put him in the running for first prize. Whether outpouring Romantic angst or relishing the ironic wit of Classicism, every word was crystal clear and every musical gesture perfectly matched to the sentiments of the text. The gradation of dramatic moods in Schumann’s ‘Belsazar’ was superb, the phrase endings beautifully crafted, while ‘Kogda bï zhizn domashnim krugom’ from Eugene Onegin demonstrated the relaxed flexibility of McAteer’s warm baritone. Hamilton Harty’s setting of the traditional Irish song, ‘My Lagan Love’, made a moving conclusion to his programme; the tempo was audaciously slow, McAteer’s dark pianissimo deeply expressive, and the rhetorical power of the song instinctively conveyed.

Ruth Jenkins demonstrated variety of tone and a broad tessitura in an interesting programme which embraced Schubert, Wolf, Handel, James Macmillan and the Icelandic composer, Sigfús Einarsson. Seeming a little nervous at the start, Jenkins struggled to control her vibrato in the long sustained notes that open Schubert’s ‘Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen’, but she did show that she knows how to build through individual phrases to shape coherent larger structures. Her intonation settled, however, and Einarsson’s ‘Draumalandio’ was notable for its wistful, gentle ambience. Gaining confidence, Jenkins brought a translucent quality to the tranquil rocking intervals of Macmillan’s ‘The Children’. She skilfully controlled the repetitive vocal line, which, like a child’s song, employs only a few basic intervals, tenderly conveying the innocence of the child in contrast to the more sophisticated gestures of the sparse piano accompaniment.

There were three other finalists. Soprano Eleanor Dennis demonstrated plenty of sparkle in ‘Come Scoglio’ and a burnished lower range in Britten’s ‘Nocturne’ from On This Island. She blended folky gestures with virtuosity in Eva Dell’Acqua’s ‘Villanelle’ but, while this was an accurately performed programme Dennis, in the difficult ‘opening slot’, did not always have the stage presence to fully engage the audience. Dennis’s accompanist, Craig White, was awarded the accompanist’s prize.

The same lack of stage impact also characterised soprano Robyn Allegra Parton’s performance. Although her rendering of Quilter’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ was exuberant, and ‘My heart leaps up’ from Britten’s Albert Herring carefully shaped, Parton’s performance was accurate, poised and pleasing rather than exciting and impactful.

The limitations of the countertenor repertoire inevitably affected Russell Harcourt’s programming; but while he attempted to introduce variety, juxtaposing Handel with Heggie, Harcourt’s light graceful voice ultimately lacked diversity of colour. This proved problematic in Bach’s renowned ‘Erbarme dich’ from the St. Matthew Passion, where he was unable to impose his presence in the strophic repetitions, following the long piano ‘between-verse’ passages. A burgeoning theatricality was evident in Handel’s ‘Vivi tiranno’ from Rodelinda, however, as well as superb breath control and an effective rhetorical style.

I’m sure we will be hearing much more from all these accomplished singers in future. And, the centenary celebrations continue at the Wigmore Hall on 28 June, when six recent winners — singers Sarah-Jane Brandon, Anna Stéphany, Ben Johnson, Jonathan McGovern, and pianists James Baillieu and John Read — come together to perform a programme of songs, duets and ensembles from Kathleen Ferrier’s repertoire, devised by Graham Johnson.

Claire Seymour

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