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Reviews

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018, Wigmore Hall
30 Apr 2018

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2018

The 63rd Competition for the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018 was an unusually ‘home-grown’ affair. Last year’s Final had brought together singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond, but the six young singers assembled at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening all originated from the UK.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Catriona Hewitson, Josephine Goddard, William Thomas and Michael Pandya (Kathleen Ferrier Award prize winners, 2018)

 

The six twenty-minute programmes were, naturally, eclectic and international though, ranging from Mozart to Mussorgsky, from Puccini to Poulenc, from Rossini to Ravel. Soprano Nardus Williams had the challenge of opening the proceedings, with accompanist Jȃms Coleman. Currently studying at the International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, where she is the sole recipient of the Kiri Te Kanawa Scholarship, this summer Williams will be a Jerwood Young Artist at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, before joining the Houston Grand Opera Studio in September. On this occasion, however, nerves seemed to get the better of her: she struggled at times to control her intonation and a rather fast, prominent vibrato made the tone somewhat shrill. Williams looked a little tense in her opening item, ‘Come scoglio’, and her delivery was rather four-square, though Coleman’s light-touch add some rhythmic vitality. Indeed, this seemed a rather ambitious choice as Williams doesn’t yet have the strength and focus at the bottom to convincingly assail the aria’s highs and lows with equal presence. Strauss’s ‘Cäcilie’ was more consistently sumptuous and I was again impressed by Coleman’s judicious accompaniment and sensitive dynamics.

Two French items allowed Williams to reveal the power of her voice, as she soared through the closing phrase of Fauré’s ‘Fleur jetée’ with sustained strength and crested the climaxes in Charpentier’s ‘Depuis le jour’ (from Louise) with a shimmering frisson. I’m not sure the French idiom is Williams’ natural territory though: the projection was a little too forthright and the diction less than clear. The soprano was most at home in Barber’s lyrical ‘Saint Ita’s Vision’, where she thoughtfully shaped both the declamatory recitative and the changing contours of the ensuing lullaby to convey the mother’s changing emotions, delicately supported by the gently placed spread chords of the accompaniment.

Bass-baritone Samuel Carl fairly bounded onto the Wigmore Hall platform and displayed a strong theatrical instinct throughout his programme with pianist Soohong Park. ‘I rage … O ruddier than the cherry’, from Handel’s Acis and Galatea, in which the smitten cyclops, Polyphemus, expresses both his jealousy and passion for the sea nymph Galatea, was strongly characterised and full of varied colours. Carl was attentive to the text, the gaping descent of his ‘capacious mouth’ prompting a chuckle from the capacity audience and the sincerity of his love captured by the floating glide with which he worshipped ‘Sweet Galatea’s beauty’. Park summoned an eerie darkness at the start of Mussorgsky’s ‘Trepak’ (from Songs and Dances of Death), in which the bass-baritone again used his voice to explore diverse moods, from sweetness to mystery, belligerence to indifference. The rhetoric was powerful but Carl wasn’t afraid to diminish his voice and make us listen hard.

Through these first two items, I wondered if at times the ‘theatricality’ wasn’t a little too ‘busy’, even distracting, and in John Ireland’s perennially popular ‘Sea-fever’ more stillness and focus would have been advantageous in capturing the effortless gentility of the folk-like idiom. Carl was in his element in Leporello’s ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ (from Don Giovanni), flourishing a ‘little red book’ from his inside pocket to taunt the imagined Elvira, but while he certainly inhabited the character and drama, Carl paid insufficient attention to the rhythmic tautness and to the shaping of the phrase endings. Overall, though, this was a confident, entertaining and engaging sequence.

The finalists are required to include at least one song in English. Contralto Stephanie Wake-Edwards tackled three, beginning with ‘Never so weary’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Hermia, her pride wounded by Helena’s insults and her heart pained by Lysander’s apparent betrayal, wanders alone in the wood before sleep overcomes her. I was impressed by the manner in which Wake-Edwards used her rich, well-focused contralto to immediately establish character and mood, and the ensemble between the contralto and pianist Thormod Rønning Kvam in the recitative was flawless. Well-centred intonation and carefully crafted phrasing created a somnolent ‘strangeness’ in the ensuing aria. The warm flowering of harmonic colour in the piano accompaniment at the start of Richard Strauss’s ‘Das Rosenband’ was welcome after the cool intimacy of Britten’s nocturnal woods and although Wake-Edwards didn’t always have the full measure of the expansiveness of Strauss’s melody, there were signs of an incipient Straussian plumpness and flush, particularly at the close when ‘Paradise bloomed about us’.

Wake-Edwards returned to Britten with Lucretia’s ‘Flower Song’ from The Rape of Lucretia, written for Kathleen Ferrier who performed the title role at Glyndebourne in 1946. The aria is sung by the shamed Lucretia the morning after she has been raped by Tarquinius. Ronald Duncan’s text presents the rather questionable proposition that while flowers are always ‘chaste’, all women are ‘debauched’ by ‘vanity or flattery’: ‘Women bring to every man/The same defection’. Dubious tenets aside, the aria is one of beautiful melodic sincerity and here the piano bass line provided a sure anchor for Wake-Edwards clean, round vocal tone. She certainly acts with her voice, but here and in Elgar’s ‘Sea slumber-song’ which closed her programme, I felt that at times the contralto pulled the words around a little too much, distorting and elongating vowels into somewhat odd shapes. However, she made a good attempt to capture the languor of the French prose in Ravel’s account of the innate regality of the peacock, as he awaits his bride, in Ravel’s ‘Le paon’ from the musical menagerie, Histoires Naturelles. Kvam made much of Elgar’s wonderful piano sonorities and gently rocking lilt, and if I’d have liked Wake-Edwards to make more of the dynamic contrasts and deepen the shine of the melodic line, then she demonstrated that her contralto certainly has a secure and wide compass, as she plummeted resonantly, ‘on the shadowy sand’.

After a short interval, soprano Josephine Goddard and pianist Elliot Launn invited us on a journey, opening their programme with a gorgeous and utterly absorbing performance of Duparc’s ‘L’invitation au voyage’ in which the soprano spun the high line with a silvery gleam above Launn’s delicately trickling accompaniment. Here, again, was the vocal elegance I admired when I saw Goddard perform the role of Adolfo in the 2017 London Handel Festival production of Faramondo , and the well-shaped melodism that Goddard demonstrated as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal College of Music earlier this year was again in evidence in Mimì’s ‘Donde lieta uscí’ in which strength of line was complemented by an appealing ‘freedom’ in the voice. Goddard controlled both dynamics and tone effectively, injecting a lovely flush of colour at the close, when the dying Mimì offers Rodolfo her pink bonnet as a memento of her love.

Launn’s steady, precise and gently articulated piano chords contributed greatly to a well-structured rendition of the ‘Nocturne’ from Britten’s 1937 song-cycle On this Island, in which the simple melodic line was expertly controlled and shaped creating a wonderfully serene image of the world sleeping as the globe spins ‘through night’s caressing grip’. Goddard coolly negotiated the sometimes surprising harmonic twists of the song, making much of the dissonance at the close, ‘Calmly till the morning break,/ Let him lie,’ before slipping easefully into the final cadence, ‘then gently wake’. Written for Peter Pears, and more commonly sung by the tenor voice, this song perhaps acquired even greater serenity from the sweetness of Goddard’s soprano. Rosalinde’s homeland reminiscences, from Johann Strauss junior’s Die Fledermaus), swept us from soothing slumber to champagne-fuelled masquerade. The aria ranges high and deep, but the soprano soared smoothly and evening through the melodic arcs. Goddard’s German was also excellent, and she paced the growing exuberance of the Csárdás perfectly, gradually ratcheting up the tempo and allowing the ‘Hungarian Countess’s’ high spirits free rein at the close. The Wigmore Hall audience loved it.

William Thomas .jpgWilliam Thomas (bass): Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018, First Prize.

William Thomas and pianist Michael Pandya adopted a more sombre tone at the start of their sequence of Russian, French, Italian and English songs, but the dark whispering of the Dawn to the Heavens - ‘I love thee well’ - at the opening of Rachmaninov’s ‘Utro’ (Morning) was no less striking. Thomas has a ‘real’ bass voice: full and ringing right at the bottom; layers of colour that blend smoothly and thickly; sonorous roundness without heaviness. Rachmaninov’s vocal line is quite austere in this early song, but Thomas injected interest into the fairly narrow melodic compass and limited gestures, capturing the gravity which derives from the careful intonation of the language and the intensity of the text’s romantic imagery. Pandya cherished the delicate pianism. In Poulenc’s ‘Mazurka’ from Mouvements du Coeur the duo offered a masterclass in how to build through a strophic form. Thomas displayed evenness across the range and a lyricism which brought depth of character to the melodic lines which present a series of disparate images.

Thomas demonstrated his adaptability and diversity in Don Basilio’s ‘La calunnia è un venticello’ (from Il barbiere di Siviglia), capturing every ounce of Basilio’s delight in cruelly baiting Bartolo with tales of Rosina’s faithlessness, of his suave self-confidence as he admires his own chicanery, and of his inflated egoism as he imagines the whirlwind of vicious gossip he will conjure and the resulting apocalyptic downfall of his intended victim. There was no loss of musicality as the patter picked up pace, once again showing intelligent appreciation of the architecture of the form, and the text was consistently idiomatic and clear.

Thomas proved himself not just a good actor, but a persuasive storyteller too, in Mussorgsky’s setting of Mephistopheles’s ‘Song of the flea’, delivering a darkly devilish account of the lavish attention bestowed by a king on his pet flea, to the detriment of his court and at the expense of his aristocratic courtiers’ comfort. Pandya’s accompaniment was full of drama, too, adding to the quasi-operatic scale. And, in the final item, Katie Moss’s ‘The floral dance’, the slightest freedom in the placement of the second beat in the triple-time lilt creating a lovely carefree air fitting for this bucolic celebration of spring’s arrival. With a skilfully controlled accelerando, Thomas conveyed the genuine ardour of youthful passion as every Cornish lad grabbed a girl by the waist and whisked her off, kissing and dancing: ‘Up and down, around the town/ Hurrah! For the Cornish Floral Dance.’

Catriona Hewitson and Eleanor Kornas had had a long wait, but the Scottish-born soprano and her accompanist made a confident start to their programme with Annette’s ‘Einst träumte … Trübe Augen’ from Weber’s Der Freischütz. Hewitson crafted the arioso effectively and her light, clean soprano had a thrilling glossiness as Annette recounted her cousin’s fervent prayer: ‘Susanna, Margaret! Susanna, Margaret!’ The running passages of the ensuing aria were unforced and free, and Kornas’s lively responsiveness contributed to a very communicative performance. Supported by the piano’s soft textures and gentle lilt, the effortlessness of Hewitson’s vocal ascents in Schumann’s ‘Stille Tränen’ was impressive; she floated to the top easily and with gracefulness, though I’d have liked her to have made more of the text.

Two songs by Poulenc were beguilingly idiomatic though. The title of ‘C’, or Cé’, is taken from the name of a commune in France, ‘The Bridges of Cé’, which had been the site of many historic battles - something that was surely in Poulenc’s mind when he set Louis Aragon’s text during WW2. Hewitson and Kornas had the full measure of the song’s shifting complexities of harmony and rhythm - which match the historic sweep encompassed by Aragon’s surreal sequence of images - and the challenging pedalling and dense accompanying chords proved no impediment to limpidity. The quiet wistfulness at the close was broken by the more bitter chain of absurd images - ‘pimps in kits’, ‘sly fellows hindered by long noses’, ‘drowned corpses that float beneath bridge’ - which depict life during the Nazi Occupation, in ‘Fêtes galantes’. A lighter spirit was evoked by Mozart’s ‘Deh vieni, no tardar’, in which Susanna, in league with the Countess, sings a seductive song to lure the Count to a nocturnal meeting. The artless simplicity of the vocal line was beautifully captured by Hewitson, but though the light clarity was fittingly enticing, this aria is many-layered, and the innate passion in Susanna’s pleas was missing. For Figaro has learned of the planned assignation and is listening in; and Susanna knows it - her promise to ‘wreathe your brow in roses’ is both a tease and a vow, and the sincerity of the latter needs to be felt too. But, Hewitson’s directness and lightness was just perfect for Liza Lehmann’s ‘If no one ever marries me’ which closed the Competition with delicately wry humour.

The six young singers all acquitted themselves well and provided considerable musical pleasure. No doubt we will be seeing much more of them in the future. The Jury - Elaine Padmore OBE, John Mark Ainsley, Malcolm Martineau OBE, Joan Rodgers CBE and David Syrus - awarded the following prizes.

First Prize: William Thomas
Second Prize: Josephine Goddard
Ferrier Loveday Song Prize: Catriona Hewitson
Help Musicians UK Accompanist’s Prize: Michael Pandya

Claire Seymour

Nardus Williams (soprano), Jȃms Coleman* (piano): Mozart - ‘Temeraro! … Come scoglio’ (from Così fan tutte ); Barber -‘Saint Ita’s vision’; Fauré - ‘Fleur jetée’; Charpentier - ‘Depuis le jour’ (from Louise); R. Strauss - ‘Cäcilie’

Samuel Carl (bass-baritone), Soohong Park (piano): Handel - ‘I rage … O ruddier than the cherry’ (fromAcis and Galatea); Mussorgsky - ‘Trepak’ (from Songs and Dances of Death); Ireland - ‘Sea-fever’; Mozart - ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ (from Don Giovanni)

Stephanie Wake-Edwards (contralto), Thormod R ønning Kvam* (piano): Britten - ‘Puppet? Why so? … Never so weary (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream); R. Strauss - ‘Das Rosenband’; Britten - ‘Flowers bring to every year (from The Rape of Lucretia); Ravel - ‘Le paon’ (from Histoires Naturelles); Elgar - ‘Sea slumber-song (from Sea Pictures)

Josephine Goddard (soprano), Elliot Launn* (piano): Duparc - ‘L’invitation au voyage’; Puccini - ‘Donde lieta uscí’ (fromLa bohème); Britten - ‘Nocturne’ (fromOn this Island); J. Strauss II - ‘Klänge der Heimat’ (from Die Fledermaus)

William Thomas (bass), Michael Pandya* (piano): Rachmaninov - ‘Utro’ (Morning); Poulenc - ‘Mazurka’ (from Mouvements du Coeur); Rossini - ‘La calunnia è un venticello’ (from Il barbiere di Siviglia); Mussorgsky - ‘Pesnya Mefistofelya o blokhe (Song of the flea)’; Moss - ‘The Floral Dance’

Catriona Hewitson (soprano), Eleanor Kornas* (piano): Weber - ‘Einst tr äumte … Trübe Augen’ (from Der Freischütz); Schumann - ‘Stille Tränen’ (Zwölf Gedichte von Jusinus Kerner); Mozart - ‘Giunse alfin il momento … Deh vieni, no tardar’ (fromLe nozze di Figaro); Poulenc - ‘C’, ‘Fêtes galantes’ ( Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon); Lehmann - ‘If no one ever marries me’ (from The Daisy Chain)

* denotes pianist competing for the Accompanist’s Prize

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