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Gemma Lois Summerfeld
26 Apr 2015

Kathleen Ferrier Awards, Wigmore Hall

Kathleen Ferrier may have been one of the world’s finest contraltos but this year’s Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final, held at the Wigmore Hall, was all about lyric sopranos.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards, Wigmore Hall

By Claire Seymour

Above: Gemma Lois Summerfeld


The competition was inaugurated in 1956, three years after the untimely death of the great English contralto, with the aim of honouring Ferrier’s memory by encouraging and supporting — in the words of this year’s jury chairman, Graham Johnson — ‘open-hearted and communicative vocal talent, promising young singers who somehow or other bore the Ferrier stamp while in no sense being imitators’. Held annually, it was originally restricted to singers from the Empire and Commonwealth but is now open to any singer under the age of 29 who has studied for at least one year in the UK or Republic of Ireland.

Preliminary rounds require candidates to demonstrate their accomplishment in song and opera, in varied languages, and to perform music written in the past and during the last fifty years. In the Final, they are required to present at least one English song and to balance song and opera in a recital lasting not more than 20 minutes.

Programming is, therefore, crucial. And, this is where the sole male competitor came unstuck. Hungarian tenor Gyula Rab demonstrated a strong, handsome voice in his final item, ‘Ecco, ridente in cielo’ from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, with pleasing Italianate colouring, but this was preceded by two rather leaden Liszt songs from Tre sonetti di Petrarca in which, despite communicating well with accompanist Paul McKenzie, the 28-year-old Rab sounded under pressure and strained at the top. More problematic still was Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Sweeter than roses’. Rab worked hard — but therein lay the problem, for the result was cumbersome and overly weighty, lacking the necessary elasticity and cleanness which the idiom requires. Rab could not hide his own disappointment with his performance but he can take heart that he has an exciting summer ahead: he returns to the Glyndebourne Festival, where he was a Chorus member in 2013, for Carmen and Poliuto, taking the role of A Christian and understudying Nearco in the latter.

That left five sopranos to battle it out. Soraya Mafi had the difficult task of opening the evening. The 26-year-old graduated from the Royal College of Music’s International Opera School in 2014 and makes her debut with ENO in The Pirates of Penzance later this month, but that did not stop the nerves kicking in and Mafi seemed somewhat disengaged in Mozart’s ‘L’amerò sarò costante’ from Il re pastore; despite the warm shine and stylish decorations she did not consistently communicate the heartfelt sincerity of Aminta’s devotions. However, in Hugo Wolf’s ‘Er ist’s’ from the Mörike-Liederbuch Mafi’s soprano bloomed thrillingly to announce the arrival of spring, and the fine-spun phrases of Julius Harrison’s ‘Philomel’ were crystalline above accompanist Ian Tindale’s magical rippling accompaniment. Tindale, who conjured tremendous energy in the Wolf song and whose introduction to Liszt’s ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ was wonderfully eloquent, was the deserving recipient of the Accompanist’s Prize. In the Liszt song, Mafi again demonstrated impressive technical control and powerful projection while in her final item, Strauss’s ‘Frühlingsstimmen’, her bright gleam came into its own as she raced through the glittery roulades with stylish panache.

Suzanne Fischer, a 27-year-old Britten-Pears Young Artist, brought drama to ‘Villes’, the first of three songs from Britten’s Les Illuminations, but found the rapidly enunciated text a challenge too far, though in the song’s less hasty final episode she revealed an appealing lower register. The third song of Britten’s cycle, ‘Phase and Antique’, was more composed, but Fischer had not quite mastered the interpretative demands. She began her programme with Constanze’s ‘Ach, ich liebte’ from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in which a variety of vocal colours persuasively conveyed emotion, while Schubert’s ‘Suleika II’ saw both Fischer and her accompanist Nicholas Fletcher scale the virtuosic challenges impressively, demonstrating clarity of line and considerable dexterity respectively. Fischer was a suave and confident Musetta in ‘Quando m’en vo soletta’ from La bohème, her waltzing phrases blending coquettish charm and tenderness.

Given the predominance of soprano voices, the decision by 24-year-old Gemma Lois Summerfield to open her programme with two less familiar songs by Sibelius was a welcome one. In ‘Diamanten på Marssnön’ (A diamond on the March snow) her rich velvety tone was alluringly set against Sebastian Wybrew’s sparkling accompaniment. Summerfield shaped the phrases with assurance and control. To my uneducated ears, her Finnish sounded idiomatic and in ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ she told related the tale of the girl who, returning from meeting her lover, must confront her angry mother most engagingly. Similarly, each verse of Mendelssohn’s strophic ‘Hexenlied’ was nuanced as she whipped through the imagery of broomsticks, goats, dragons and Beelzebub. Here, and in Copland’s ‘Heart! We will forget him!’ from 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson, Summerfield moved with effortless legato between registers, her lovely burnished lower voice complemented by a glossy top. Frau Fluth’s monologue from Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor was stunningly capricious and sparkling — a highlight of the evening.

Alice Privett, a 27-year-old graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, opened the post-interval sequence with Massenet’s ‘Je suis encore tout étourdie’; she got confidently into her stride and made a good effort to convey Manon’s confusion when she meets Lescaut as she journeys to the convent, without really capturing the young girl’s naïve vulnerability. Likewise, the hymnal lyricism of ‘O waly, waly’ (arranged Britten) eluded Privett and her pianist Chad Vindin. In Messiaen’s ‘L’amour de piroutcha’ from the song cycle Harawi, however, they found their niche and showed great composure, Privett’s silky phrasing supported by Vindin’s subtly understated accompaniment, conveying the song’s strange mystical quality. Handel’s ‘Let the bright seraphim’ had a brassy brightness and allowed Privett to show off her breath control and neat trills.

Prunier’s aria ‘Chi il bel sogno’ from Puccini’s La rondine was the wonderfully persuasive opening item in the final programme of the evening, presented by the Armenian soprano Tereza Gevorgyan. The 27-year-old is currently studying at the National Opera Studio — supported by Opera North, the Amar-Franses and Foster-Jenkins Trust and Opera Les Azuriales — and in this impressively assured rendition (accompanied by Fletcher, who did double duty during the evening) Gevorgyan employed judicious rubato and produced a lovely vocal sheen. Manon’s ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’ (Massenet) was dazzling as Gevorgyan span the vocal line ravishingly. Here, and in ‘How fair this spot’ by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Tell me, what in the shade of the branches’, she showed that she has tremendous stage presence. Bridge’s ‘Love went a-riding’ was an exciting rip-roaring close.

The panel of judges awarded Second Prize to Mafi, while Summerfield — the youngest competitor — swept the board taking both the Song Prize, for her interpretation of Sibelius, and First Prize. I’d have had a hard time picking a winner from this impressive line-up.

Claire Seymour

Artists and programmes:

Soraya Mafi (soprano), Ian Tindle (piano): Mozart ‘L’amerò sarò costante’, Wolf ‘‘Er ist’s’, Harrison ‘Philomel’, Liszt ‘Oh! Quands je dors’, J. Strauss ‘Frühlingsstimmen Waltz’.

Suzanne Fletcher (soprano), Nicholas Fletcher (piano): Mozart ‘Ach, ich liebte’, Britten ‘Villes’, ‘Phrase and Antique’, Schubert ‘Suleika II’, Puccini ‘Quando m’en vo soletta’, Bridge ‘Love went a-riding’.

Gemma Lois Summerfield (soprano), Sebastien Wybrew (piano): Sibelius ‘Diamanten på Marssnön’ and ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’, Mendelssohn ‘Hexenlied’, Duparc ‘Chanson triste’, Copland ‘Heart! We will forget him’, Nicolai ‘Nun eilt herbei’.

Alice Privett (soprano), Chad Vindin (piano): Massenet ‘Je suis encore’, Britten ‘O waly waly’, Messiaen ‘L’amour de piroutcha’, Handel ‘Let the bright seraphim’.

Gyula Rab (tenor), Paul McKenzie (piano): Liszt ‘Benedetto sia ‘l giorno’ and ‘I’vidi in terra angelici costumi’, Britten/Purcell ‘Sweeter than roses’, Rossini ‘Ecco ridente e celo’.

Tereza Gevorgyan (soprano), Nicholas Fletcher (piano): Puccini ‘Chi il bel sorgno’, Massenet ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’, Rachmaninov ‘How fair this spot’ (Zdes’ khorosho), Tchaikovsky ‘Tell me, what in the shade of the branches?’, Bridge ‘Love went a-riding’.

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