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From left to right: James Newby, Alessandro Fisher, Bianca Andrew and Ashok Gupta [Photo by Robert Piwko]
02 May 2016

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2016

Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2016

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: From left to right: James Newby, Alessandro Fisher, Bianca Andrew and Ashok Gupta [Photo by Robert Piwko]

 

Indeed, at the Cadogan Hall Gemma Lois Summerfield, the 2015 Ferrier winner, had impressed with her poise and expressive richness, as Berenice in Jommelli’s opera; and, Jennifer France, winner of the Song Prize in the 2014 Awards, had demonstrated great maturity, a confident stage presence and bright, alert tone. There is every evidence that the six singers participating in the Finals of this year’s competition, and many of those who competed in the earlier rounds, will equal their forerunners’ successes.

Chinese-born soprano He Wu, a Young Artist at the National Opera Studio, had the difficult job of getting proceedings underway and, understandably, she seemed a little nervous in Massenet’s ‘Frère, voyez! … Du gai soleil’ (Werther), struggling to control the intonation and producing a hard edge to the tone. Schubert’s ‘Nachtviolen’ also suffered from thin tone and vocal tension: the melody felt perilously perched and lacked the soft-scented radiance that it requires to support its modest nature, though pianist Ben-San Lau provided an airy accompaniment and as the song progressed the interplay between voice and piano suggested unity and warmth.

Richard Strauss’s ‘Amor’ played to the 26-year-old’s strengths, and she demonstrated considerable power and agility, although there remained a tendency to shrillness at the top which diminished the silvery delicacy of the melody. I felt, too, that Lau could have taken a more insouciant approach to the lazy rhythms of Strauss’s triplets and spread chords. An overly wide vibrato marred Frank Bridge’s ‘Come to me in my dreams’ and Matthew Arnold’s text was not always intelligible, though the piano postlude was affecting. Wolf’s ‘Auch kleine Dinge’ was unevenly phrased, but He Wu was at her best in the final item, Puccini’s ‘Chi il bel sogno’ (La rondine) in which her lustre, long-breathed phrasing and vocal strength suggested she will be a terrific Mimi.

27-year-old Alessandro Fisher, who studied the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and is currently singing with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, began his programme with Lalo’s ‘Vainement, ma bien-aimée’, the aubade from Act 3 of the composer’s opera Le roi d’Ys, in which Mylio, a young warrior, tries to convince Rozenn, his bride-to-be, to leave the protection of her handmaidens and join him in the wedding procession. Fisher was an engaging story-teller, relaxed of voice, singing with sensitive phrasing and good appreciation of the French idiom. The final pianissimo high A — ‘Je vais, hélas! mourir, hélas!’ — was floated with finesse.

Rachmaninov’s ‘The morn of life’ (Sey den’ ya pomnyu) presented an austere contrast to the subsequent repertoire staple, ‘Ach so fromm’ by Flotow (Martha), in which Fisher used his light, bright tenor to good effect, soaring gracefully and silkily. Ashok Gupta was a splendid accompanist in Schubert’s ‘Die böse Farbe’ (Die Schöne Müllerin); the delicate arpeggiated chords were beautifully crisp and the repeated tolling note, which strike the wandering miller with the devastating reality that the girl he loves does not love him in return, rang with unalleviated sadness.

Michael Head’s ‘A Blackbird Singing’ was infused with an equal poignancy. Fisher’s enunciation of the text was clear but unmannered, and the simplicity of the strophic form — and the lilting honesty of the folk-like melody, with its hopefully rising octave followed by waning, falling thirds and the simplicity of the final statement — offered little consolation: ‘A blackbird singing I hear in my troubled mind.’ Fisher’s tenor was sweet and dreamy, but never unfocused, perfectly conveying the mystery and pathos of loss.

Two songs from Reynaldo Hahn’s cycle Venetia closed the tenor’s sequence, and they were sung with tenderness and touching import. Hahn wrote these songs in 1900 when visiting Venice with his lover Marcel Proust. If the composer himself was reputed to have ‘a slim thread of a voice’, which he muted further by singing with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Fisher sculpted the lines beautifully and with nuanced rubato, matching the easy rocking of the piano accompaniments — he seemed to be inviting, ‘step into my gondola and let me transport you elsewhere’. ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada’ possessed a hint of wit and charm, and the tenor rose easily to its vocal challenges; ‘L’avertimento’ was vivid and firmer of tone. Again, Gupta created telling drama even in the quietest sways and ripples of the accompaniment.

New Zealand mezzo-soprano Bianca Andrew (26), who is currently a student of Yvonne Kenny on the Opera Studies course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, made a strong impression in Meyebeer’s ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut!’ from Les Huguenots, singing the bright recitative with striking character and colour. Against the backdrop of the St. Bartholomew Massacre, the page Urbain asks the hero Raoul to meet with Queen Margaret, who wants to arrange a political marriage; Andrew’s sumptuous directness suggested that she would make a striking impact on stage.

Dylan Perez’s rippling arpeggios made an attention-calling opening to Richard Strauss’s ebullient love song ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’, which Andrew sang with fervour and freshness. Her mezzo was sweet, the line fluent and Perez’s accompaniment was well wedded to the vocal nuances. Hahn’s ‘Phyllis’ was one of the highlights of the evening, endearingly characterised by elegant phrasing, variegated tints, a burnished lower register and touching pianissimos. The mezzo-soprano captured the gentle intimacy of this song and seemed fully aware of the relationship between vocal colour and meaning.

Cherubino’s ‘Non so più’ was full of breathless excitement, but Andrews’ mezzo is a tad too fruity for the adolescent page. She was on more comfortable and fitting territory in Ben Moore’s ‘Sexy Lady’. An encore piece written originally for Susan Graham, the song is a comic complaint of a star mezzo-soprano trapped en travesti — as Mozart’s lovesick adolescents, Handel’s dysfunctional knights — and it was quite a risky choice, prioritising dramatic presence over vocal technique, but Andrew pulled it off with aplomb, aided by the deadpan gravity of her accompanist.

28-year-old Anna Rajah, a graduate of GSMD and RCM, opened the post-interval sequence with Bellini’s ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta … O quante volte’ from I Capuletti e I Montecchi, revealing an impressive grasp of phrase structure and a vocal intensity which enlivened even the finest unaccompanied melodic threads, although the tuning was not always rock steady. In Fauré’s ‘Clair de lune’ Rajah showed her appreciation of the suggestive intimations of the composer’s restrained melodic utterances and through-composed structure; the gentle reticence of the song suited the rather small magnitude of her soprano. Debussy’s ‘La romance d’Ariel’ was meltingly sweet throughout the challenging coloratura of the elf’s pyrotechnics, but I found Rajah oddly detached and cold in Pamina’s ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’: her vibrato was quite tight and there was little sense of the fluidity of line — Pamina is, after all, no Ice-Queen. Fortunately, there was copious and consoling joy and warmth in Roger Quilter’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’.

Baritone James Newby, currently in his last year of study at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, was the youngest of the finalists at 23 years-of-age but he showed impressive maturity in a diverse programme. Papageno’s ‘Papagena! Weibchen! Täubchen!’ wasn’t the easiest number to start with, as more usually we have had three hours to understand and empathise with the bird-catcher’s idiosyncratic, infuriating and endearing qualities; but, Newby demonstrated care, thoughtfulness and clarity in the shaping of Mozart’s phrases, suggesting that he will make a charming and lovable semi-rogue. Finalists are required to balance song with opera and in the aria’s brief spoken episodes Newby suggested that he will have dramatic presence to match his appealing vocal tone. Pianist Panaretos Kyriatzidis was attentive to the details and the duo effected a beguiling transition to the more animated closing episode.

Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ was exciting: fast, vibrant and emotionally febrile. Again, Kyriatzidis impressed, his galloping accompaniment persuasively tempestuous, and Newby embodied all four protagonists with striking directness. Massenet’s ‘Danse macabre’ revealed also a rich lower register and a telling way with the text.

Britten’s ‘Look, through the port comes the moonshine astray’ (Billy Budd) began with a flow of sensuous anticipation. Newby’s free vocal line was beautifully lyrical and expertly phrased, with well-controlled breathing and dynamics, and a teasing pianissimo. As the aria developed, the tenor conveyed Billy’s vigour forcefully, but the sentiments were never over-staged, as Newby sang with stylishness and vitality. The vocal lines had smoothness and continuity, the many and slight ritardandos were impressively negotiated, sustained high notes were vehement but not forced, and the coda was explosive but always controlled. Butterworth’s ‘Is my team ploughing’ offered a poignant contrast which communicated powerfully to the audience in the Hall.

Samling Artist Nardus Williams (25) brought the Finals to a close. Accompanied by Welsh pianist Jâms Coleman, she presented a challenging programme which gave ample opportunity for us to appreciate her superbly controlled, sensuous soprano which has sheen and shimmer as well as real focus of tone.

Williams recently became the first singer to win the Trinity Laban Gold Medal Competition at Kings Place, fulfilling the promise that she had shown as an undergraduate when she was awarded the Audrey Strange Memorial Prize for Most Promising Young Singer in the 62nd Royal Over-seas League Competition. She is a 2015/16 Park Lane Group Artist and is currently continuing her studies at the Royal Academy of Music with Lillian Watson and Ingrid Surgenor.

Williams opened her programme with a bold choice, Walton’s lively ‘The Lord Mayor’s Table’, which she sang with good pitch and gentle humour, enunciating the words clearly. The Wagnerian opulence of Duparc’s ‘Extase’ was well-controlled, the gentle rises and falls creating a dreamy detachment while the sentiments remained sincere. Perhaps Donna Elvira’s ‘Ah! chi mi dice mai’ didn’t have quite enough bite, and I found Williams’ vibrato too heavy for Brahms’s ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’ (Motionless mild air), which revived the Tristan­-like ambience of the Duparc’s mélodie, but the passionate imploring of the text was direct and heartfelt, and the diminishment into nothingness at the close beautifully nuanced. Cameron’s accompaniment established a sighing slumber, his delicate trills evoking the fitful fall of the fountain which alone disturbs the garden’s gloom.

Rachmaninov’s ‘Spring torrents’ was a powerful and compelling conclusion; the sweeping triplets and sextuplets of the piano accompaniment conveyed the enthusiasm and need which greets the return of spring, and the joyful power of Williams’s soprano built to a triumphal piano postlude.

The women may have dominated the programme but it was the men who walked off with the honours. For only the second time in the 61-year history of the Awards, First Prize was shared by Alessandro Fisher and James Newby, with no Second Prize awarded. Bianca Andrew won the Ferrier Loveday Song Prize for her rendition of songs by Alvén and Wolf in her semi-final programme, while Ashok Gupta was awarded the Help Musicians UK Accompanists Prize.

Claire Seymour


He Wu, soprano: Massenet, ‘Frère, voyez! … Du gai soleil (Werther), Schubert — ‘Nachtviolen’, R. Strauss — ‘Amor’, Wolf — ‘Auch kleine Dinge’ (Italienisches Liederbuch), Bridge — ‘Come to me in my dreams’, Puccini, ‘Chi il bel sogno’ (La rondine).

Alessandro Fisher, tenor: Lalo, ‘Vainement, ma bien-aimée’ (Le roi d’Ys), Rachmaninov — ‘The morn of life’, Flotow — ‘Ach so fromm’ (Martha), Schubert — ‘Die böse Farbe’ ( Die Schöne Mçüllerin), Head — ‘A Blackbird Singing’, Hahn — ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada; L’avertimento’ (Venezia)

Bianca Andrew, mezzo-soprano: Meyebeer — ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut!’ (Les Huguenots), R. Strauss — ‘Heimlicher Aufforderung’, Hahn — ‘Phyllis (Études Latines), Mozart — ‘Non so più, cosa son, coas faccio’ ( Le nozze di Figaro), Ben Moore — Sexy Lady.

Anna Rajah, soprano: Bellini — ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta … O quante volte’ (I Capuletti e I Montecchi), Fauré — ‘Clair de lune’, Debussy — ‘La romance d’Ariel’, Mozart — ‘Ach, ich fühl’s ( Die Zauberflöte), Quilter — ‘Love’s Philosophy’.

James Newby, baritone: Mozart — ‘Papagena! Weibchen! Täubchen! (Die Zauberflöte), Schubert — Erlkönig’, Saint-Saëns — ‘Danse macabre’, Massenet — ‘Vision fugitive’ (Hérodiade), Butterworth — ‘Is my team ploughing? (A Shropshire Lad).

Nardus Williams, soprano: Walton — ‘The Lord Mayor’s Table’, Duparc — ‘Extase’, Mozart — ‘Ah! chi mi dice mai’ (Don Giovanni), Brahms — ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’, Rachmaninov — ‘Spring torrents’.

Wigmore Hall, London, Friday 29th April 2016

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