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Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017, Wigmore Hall
01 May 2017

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017, at the Wigmore Hall

The Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship Fund was founded in 1953 in memory of the much-loved contralto from Lancashire who died at the tragically young age of 41 and whose career as a singer lasted just 12 years. The purpose of the fund was to make an annual award to a young British singer sufficient to cover the cost of a year’s study and general support. The first competition was held in 1956 and it has continued to provide a few outstandingly talented young singers each year since then with the opportunity of making a start in what is a most difficult and demanding career.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Julien van Mellaerts


The finalists for this year’s award, the 62nd, included singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond - and only one of the six competitors for the £12,500 First Prize was a woman. But, at the Wigmore Hall, on Finals Night, standards were high, programmes were varied, and the musicianship on display, from singers and accompanists alike, promised much for the years to come.

One thing that struck me was the importance of each singer’s programme selection. Admittedly, for this last stage of the competition the finalists have fairly free range: their programmes must not exceed 20 minutes, must contain at least one English song and must present a balance between opera and song. And, performances in the preceding rounds are taken into account; so, the interloper at the concluding stage is perhaps not the best equipped to essay a judgement about ‘losers and winners’. But, those singers who impressed most were those whose chosen repertoire demonstrated both an appreciation of their own innate musical leanings and strengths, and a balance and range which intimated an ability to meet the technical and communicative demands of the successful professional careers which hopefully lie ahead.

The sole female competitor, Nigerian-American soprano Francesca Chiejina - a current member of the Jette Young Parker Young Artists’ Programme at the Royal Opera House - displayed deep and rich colours to convey the indignation of Handel’s jealous sorceress, Melissa, in ‘Il crudel m’abbandona’ (Amadigi di Gaula) and the grief-obsessed weariness of Debussy’s ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ (Tears fall in my heart). The latter was complemented by Dylan Perez’s plangent piano ‘tears’. But, her sequence was dominated by the emotive timbre and assertive power of Edward Boater’s arrangement of the spiritual hymn, ‘I want Jesus to walk with me’ and Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, two songs which conjured not dissimilar contexts and sound worlds - even down to the lazy chromatic slithers in the accompaniments. In a recent article , Chiejina has spoken of how she looks up to the American soprano Mary Violet Leontyne Price and her late compatriot Marian Anderson, admiring the duo for shattering racial barriers not just in the US, but also beyond in the world of opera, and her programme presumably reflected her belief that ‘what is about the people should be for all the people. Classical music is very relatable and approachable … and I want everyone, especially young African children, to believe it so’. Chiejina concluded with Richard Strauss’s ‘Ich liebe dich’ in which, as in the Handel and Strauss, the soprano sometimes struggled to centre the pitch and control her vibrato, though she displayed plenty of power and passion.

Strauss had opened the evening’s proceedings, with Catalan tenor Eduard Mas Bacardit’s rendition of ‘Nichts’ (Nothing). It’s always an additional challenge to take to the platform as the first competitor, and - for the inexperienced visitor to the Wigmore Hall - to judge the size and acoustic of the full auditorium. Here, and in de Falla’s ‘Olas gigantes’ which followed, Bacardit sounded a little tense, the phrasing somewhat unyielding, the tone at times lacking in tenderness. The English text of Britten’s setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘A time there was’ ( Winter Words) was not clearly communicated; Bacardit’s head voice was a little unsteady and the swift tempo and Perez’s weighty piano chords created a strenuous, rather than poignant, mood. However, I had admired Bacardit’s performance in the GSMD’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta last autumn, and he once again characterised spiritedly in Verdi’s ‘De miei bollenti spiriti’ (La traviata), and captured both the bewildered disillusionment of ‘No puede ser!’ (It cannot be so!) from Pablo Sorozábal’s zarzuela La tabernera del puerto and the delicate sentiments of Fernando Obradors’ ‘Del cabello más sutil’ (From the finest hair) from the Canciones clásicas españolas. Hugo Wolf’s ‘Abschied’ (from Mörike-Lieder) confirmed Bacardit as a real stage performer.

JamesWay0851.jpg James Way

James Way was the other tenor in the final, and he really impressed me with his assurance, crystal clear and expressive diction, light but focused tone, and ability to subtly alter the colour and weight of a phrase. After a genial, engaging account of Schubert’s ‘An Silvia’, Mozart’s ‘Ah! qual gelido orror … Il padre adorato’ (Idomeneo) revealed Way’s ability to communicate character and dramatic situation with immediacy and directness, and a sure vocal technique which enabled him to make Idamante’s somewhat breathless perplexity and filial love credible. He was ably aided by Natalie Burch’s crisp, busy accompaniment. In Handel’s ‘I must with speed amuse her’ (Semele), Way demonstrated a strong appreciation of the idiom: the tenor had the vocal strength to truly sing through the line, ornamentation of the da capo was light of touch and clean, and excitement was generated by textual repetitions. This vocal prowess was capped by a charming presence and good eye contact with the audience. Way concluded his programme with Britten first Canticle, My beloved is mine, and here his excellent diction was a real asset, as was his comprehension of the dramatic form and progression of the work. Changes of tone and mood were convincing, as the canticle moved from barcarolle to recitative, from scherzo to slow coda. The second stanza’s expression of fulfilled love - ‘and after long pursuit,/ Ev’n so we joyn’d; we both became entire’ - was impassioned by vibrant freedom of the melismatic vocal line and the new energy propelled by the piano’s tumult. There was a peace at the close, ‘He is my Altar; I, his Holy Place’, which had a divine ambience. Way was awarded Second Prize.

With only one soprano among the six finalists, it was left to Wisconsin-born counter-tenor Patrick Terry to provide some registral balance. He began his programme, accompanied by pianist Somi Kim, with Judith Weir’s ‘Sweet Little Red Feet’, a setting of John Keats which forms one of the movements of The voice of desire (2003) which all present conversations between humans and birds. In this setting, the bird is in fact dead (‘I had a dove and the sweet dove died’), smothered, it is implied, by too much affection. This is a challenging song, both technically and musically, with which to begin, but Terry gave a confident and accomplished performance, his countertenor full and warm of tone, the pitch secure throughout the difficult vocal lines even though little assistance is offered by the piano’s dramatic rhetoric. Terry’s performance of ‘L’enamourée’ (The loved-one) by Reynaldo Hahn was one of the highlights of the evening: there was a real sense of rapture as Théodore de Banville’s poetry flowered from sparse gentleness to rich delight: ‘Tu t’évielles ranimée,/ O pensive bien-aimée’ (You waken, restored to life,/ O meditative beloved’). The exquisitely smooth phrases enticed the listener; the lines were nimbly flexible but contoured with total control. I found Gluck’s ‘Che faro senza Euridice?’ marred by a little too much vibrato and the intonation was less consistent, though Terry again revealed his ability to craft a delicious diminuendo and pianissimo. We were back in modern times for the final work of the programme, Jonathan Dove’s ‘Dawn. Still Darkness’ from his 1999 opera Flight, which was delivered with characteristic intensity. Terry was awarded the Song Prize.

patrickterry_1463479662_21.jpg Patrick Terry.

Two baritones completed the line-up. I thought Daniel Shelvey over-stretched himself a little in his programme choices. Altering the order of the published sequence, Shelvey began with Richard Strauss’s ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ (Secret invitation) and demonstrated dramatic presence and a beguiling tone to equal that which impressed me when he sang the role of Damyan in the GSMD’s premiere of Julian Philips’ The Tale of Januarie in February this year; but, the baritone needed to sing out more and do more with the ardent text to match the rapturous ripples in Perez’s accompaniment. And, Shelvey didn’t quite have the power and swagger for Don Giovanni’s ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’ (Until the wine …), sounding a little pushed even though the tempo was not breakneck, and struggling to stop the pitch wavering in the blustering exclamations. I liked the darker colour he found, however, for the refrain of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Don Juan’s serenade’, the second of two of the composer’s 6 Romances which Shelvey performed (the other being ‘None but the lonely heart’).

gamal1of221.jpg Gamal Khamis.

Both baritones included Billy Budd’s ‘Look! Through the port comes the moon-shine astray!’ in their programmes. Shelvey revealed a quasi-tenorial brightness at times, and found stillness and calm towards the conclusion. New Zealander Julien van Mellaerts used his head voice judiciously, balanced quiet unfolding with emotional enrichening, and captured the strangeness and indeterminacy of this operatic set-piece, in which time seems to stand still. Here and in his opening item, Berlioz’s ‘Mab, la reine des mensonges’ (Mab, queen of delusions) from Rom éo et Juliette, van Mellaerts cut an assured figure on stage, and sang with an open, engaging tone. His pianist, Gamal Khamis, danced lightly through the intricacies of Berlioz’s accompaniment. There was a lovely earnestness to Quilter’s ‘Go, lovely rose’ - just the right side of whimsy. The German texts of Wolf’s ‘Liebchen, wo bist du?’ (Sweetest, where are you?) and Schumann’s ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit night) were compellingly delivered, while in the latter composer’s ‘Der Contrabandiste’ (The smuggler) from Spanisches Liederspiel the baritone demonstrated the muscularity and vitality of his voice. Van Mellaerts was a worthy winner of the First Prize. Khamis was awarded the Accompanist’s Prize.

No doubt we’ll be hearing much more of all these performers in the future.

Claire Seymour

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 28th April 2017

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