S&H Competition review

Wigmore Hall 3rd International Song Competition Finals, Wigmore Hall, London 15 September 2001(ME) & (PGW)

 

"What greater and more touching pleasure is there in life than giving a young and beautiful talent a little lift in the direction of the stars?" as Clifford Curzon said, although in the case of competitions one does sometimes wonder if the right ones are lifted high enough. The Wigmore competition finals presented four young singers of varying degrees of readiness and promise, and no Lieder lover could fail to be interested in the outcome.

We began with Tyler Duncan, a very youthful-looking Canadian baritone, accompanied by Erika Switzer. His programme was interestingly varied, and daringly began with "An die Ferne Geliebte." The first song was, to put it kindly, embarrassing; he was very tense, hands clenched, and of course this showed in the voice, but he did recover by the time he reached "Leichte Segler....." revealing a fairly lightweight, lyrical baritone with a good solid middle and the capability to produce lovely soft singing. Although "Diese Wolken..." lacked subtlety, he did manage to suggest something of the contrasts implied in Beethoven's music. His French group was limited in success; diction was reasonable, but Faure requires singing of buoyant legato and a certain quality of languour, both of which were lacking. He was most at home in Bolcom, where "Waitin'" was sung with real poise and confidence, and "Black Max" closed his selections with swagger and elan. A promising young singer.

He was followed by another Canadian, the soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who was already poised, confident and serene in her stage manner: she impressed from her first phrases. Her opening Berlioz was not without flaws, but she carried it off with such assurance that you forgave her the one or two moments of soupy portamento and less than perfect diction. The songs from "Wesendonk Lieder" were amongst the best things in the competition. "Der Engel," in particular, revealed Miss Brueggergosman's qualities; excellent German diction, impressive care for words, and a lovely warm tone with which she shaped Wagner's arching phrases with real style; "Meinen Geist nun himmelwaerts" succeeded in bringing tears to my eyes. Her Wolf group was less successful; I felt she exaggerated and missed some of the subtleties of the music, and of course I loathed all her moues and coquettishness during "In dem Schatten meiner Locken," although she sang it well. The final Turina songs were new to me, and she certainly enjoyed singing them as much as most of the audience did hearing her. This is a young singer with a beautiful voice and assured stage manner; I do not think that she will ever be amongst the greatest, but she will have a considerable career and will be made welcome in every concert hall which she graces with her lovely, serene presence. She had a considerable advantage in her pianist, the very musical David Eliakis, who proved equal to all the challenges offered by her programme.

The tenor Daniel Norman had the difficult task of following them. Daniel has been around the London musical scene for a while; he is older than the other finalists, and has the advantage of much professional experience. I have heard him substitute for John Mark Ainsley very creditably, and his voice is in that mould - not so beautiful and not used with such musicality and sensitivity, but light and tending at times towards the astringent. His programme was pleasingly ambitious, but his first group, 6 songs from Schumann's "Liederkreis" Op. 39, was not entirely successful. It was unfortunate for him, that most of the audience and jury had heard Matthias Goerne sing this cycle only days before - naturally, he had prepared it long before Goerne had substituted it for Schoenberg. Daniel's interpretation is a tense, angry one; there is little room for tenderness in his way with the songs, even in "Intermezzo," and he takes a grimly determined line throughout - one would have thought he was singing "Winterreise" at times. He sings dramatically, with an excess of not-very-natural gesture, and his tone is insufficiently lyrical to give real pleasure. His Faure group was more successful, largely due to his having settled down somewhat, and he ended with a highly charged account of Julian Philips' setting of e e cummings' "a grin without a face." This tenor has an attractive voice, is musical and had the inestimable advantage of the superb Christopher Gould as his accompanist (there were moments when Gould's playing echoed that of Eric Schneider) but he is not a future star.

The last finalist was the American bass-baritone Erik Nelson Werner , accompanied by Kiai Nara. Now, here was a programme to please me; not a single moment of nicky-nacky-noo, and relentlessly serious from start to finish - in short, it was not really the programme of a rookie competitor, but that of an established artist who wishes not merely to exhibit his voice but to create a mood and sustain it, to present a linked theme through a group of songs - in other words, to instruct as well as delight. By the second song, one simply forgot that this was a competition, in that you had such complete confidence in the singer's technique and understanding of the music that you just surrendered yourself to it without any of that horrible sinking feeling of "will he/she make it?"

He began with two songs by Vaughan Williams; the first, "The Vagabond," was sung with real style, if perhaps a trifle too gloomily for everyone - after all, despite resemblances, it is not "Der Wegweiser." "The Infinite Shining Heavens" was wonderful; this music showed off Erik's voice to perfection - a very fine bass-baritone, secure in intonation, rich in tone and used with intelligence and musicality. Pfitzner followed, "Der verspatete Wanderer" an ambitious choice for a young singer, but how finely he did it, shaping those challenging phrases with delicate skill, especially at "Alle Lieben sind wandermuede laengst zuruckgeblieben."

Next came one of Brahms' most difficult songs, "Wie rafft' ich mich auf in der Nacht," and you could hear the results of this singer having been coached by Quasthoff; the rugged determination, the direct phrasing, the muscular shaping of the words were all there, not as a copy of the master but subsumed into this fine young singer's own interpretation. Three superbly sung Barber settings followed, and then Shostakovich's "Proschanje." This was the high point of the entire evening; in keeping with the sombre tenor of this programme, here was a song of farewell and resignation, sung with fluid legato, musical phrasing and excellent diction - by that last wonderful line "Pred zatochenijem jevo" (before his imprisonment) Erik had the audience right where he wanted them - in the palm of his hand. He closed his extremely ambitious programme with two superbly sung Fortner settings of Shakespeare. Kiai Nara provided exquisitely sympathetic, sensitive and confident accompaniment.

I have dwelt longer on this final competitor for the simple reason that I think he alone of the four is a future star. He is at present a little too serious in his manner to please everyone, and there is some tension there too - but that is natural, especially given the circumstances of the week in which the competition took place - any American deserves immense credit for even completing it. However, all that is beside the point; Erik is the possessor of one of the most beautiful male voices I have heard for a long time, and to this natural gift he adds intelligence, sensitivity, a maturity beyond his years, an obvious love for the poetry and music he sings, and an already well honed technique. I suppose being extremely good - looking won't do him any harm, either. However - his programme, bearing in mind the instruction that the jury would be taking account of "variety," was perhaps too relentlessly serious.

The jury took an exceptionally long time over their deliberations, and when we were finally called back in, there were several speeches from the platform, including some very revealing remarks from Graham Johnson. Somewhat inarticulately and embarrassed - unusual, for him - he rambled on about how we must not take offence at the judgement, since everyone is different, we all hear different things, and some of us "warm" to some singers whilst being left utterly cold by others. He seemed to be saying that it was all "just personal," there were no criteria for judgement, and that what we were about to hear would not please us, but it was just what they wanted. Now, I acknowledge that there is some truth in what he said about subjectivity, but I would still have liked a de-briefing or some kind of report back on how they reached their decision. I would also question the detail of his contention; to take a somewhat crude example, I "warm" to Thomas Quasthoff, whereas Dietrich Henschel leaves me cold. This is not because one is cute and the other isn't, but is simply because Quasthoff has a beautiful voice which he uses with sensitivity and intelligence, whereas Henschel has a very dry voice, used without much sign of imagination. Part of that is subjective, yes, but most of it is capable of being accounted for, and I'd have liked something a bit more convincing from the Chairman than "Don't blame us, because we know in advance you're not going to like this, but it's all just personal opinion!"

He announced that there was no winner of the prize, to much gasping & bewilderment. Measha was second - which was right - Tyler was third, Erik fourth, and Daniel was awarded a "Finalists Prize." The audience seemed aghast. The Pianists' prize went to Christopher Gould, a superb musician with a real future as an accompanist.

The Friends of Wigmore Hall donate an Audience Prize, somewhat disparagingly referred to by Graham Johnson as representing "Vox Populi" (well, Graham, there are Populi, and there are Wigmore audiences...........) Not surprisingly, this went to Erik, and was greeted with the only real cheers of the evening. It was not without reason that the Wigmore audience was once described (by a singer) as "...dem besten, verstandigesten, snobistischen Publikum der Welt." I hope we're proved right - I'm optimistic that we will be.

Melanie Eskenazi

S&H Competition Report

3rd International Song Competition Finals, Wigmore Hall, London 15 September 2001 (PGW)

The final stage of the International Song Competition began badly, with a half hour recital by a Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan (whose accompanist Erika Switzer was no help to him) which was so dispiriting that we wondered if we would stay the course of a long evening ahead. He was tense and stood rigidly at attention like a soldier, and neither of them seemed to have any idiomatic sense of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, despite there being so many fine accounts of it on record. The tempo changes were cornered jerkily and unconvincingly, and the piano part was played in a generalised manner, with no period feeling for the place of this innovative cycle in the development of the genre. I feared, not without reason, for the late Fauré to follow, knowing that the great accompanist Dalton Baldwin, a famous specialist in French melodie, was in the jury; their L'Horizon chimérique suggested that they had not heard his recording with Gerard Souzay, nor absorbed the indispensable teachings in Pierre Bernac's definitive book. At this point, one wondered about the other candidates who were not selected for the Finals (about thirty in all took part).

However, things improved, with three excellent singers following, each with notably accomplished piano partners, giving the distinguished jury, which included Felicity Palmer, Elly Ameling, Matthias Goerne & Dalton Baldwin, under the chairmanship of Graham Johnson, what proved to be a prolonged and unenviable task; it has to be borne in mind however that they will have listened through all three stages, ensuring a broader perspective than was available to the packed Wigmore Hall audience of singing connoisseurs for the Finals.

Those three singers have voice registers completely different, as were their chosen repertoires in the final half-hour recitals - so it was not an opportunity to compare like with like. The established English tenor, Daniel Norman, who is featured in the Hyperion Schubert Edition, has a somewhat dry tenor voice, not immediately ingratiating, but he brought intelligent musicality to Schumann and Fauré and offered the most interesting modern novelty of the evening, two quirky e e cummings settings by Julian Philips, a composer not known to me, in which pianist Christopher Gould excelled. Erik Nelson Werner has a rich, even bass-baritone voice and surely a distinguished operatic career ahead. His rather solemn programme of 'wanderer' songs (V-W, Pfitzner & Brahms), followed by Barber, Shostakovich & Fortner, was less varied than I would have wished, but scrupulously prepared and delivered, and impeccably supported by his alert, prompt Japanese partner, pianist Kiai Nara.

My decided personal preference was for Measha Brueggergosman, a Canadian soprano who captured the audience with a rapt Berlioz Le Spectre de la rose, followed by an intense Wagner Wesendonk group. Both these are better known in orchestral versions, and her partner David Eliakis supported her with consummate skill. She lived Wolf's Geh, Geliebter with passionate urgency and found different inflections to Ach nein each time she decided not to wake her sleeping lover In dem Schatten, exactly as Lotte lehmann had recommended and taught in a memorable Wigmore Hall Master Class long ago. Finally, she became an imperious Spaniard in two little-known Turina sonnets, ensuring my vote for the 500 Audience Prize. Her voice is beautiful and unique, with a range of timbre and intensity, her stage manner is natural and at ease, and she was not afraid to take risks. This is a charismatic singer, who was not playing safe for a 'committee' jury, one whom I would wish to hear soon in a full length recital and in opera.

A word of gratitude and congratulations to the Wigmore Hall for supplying full words and translations of all the songs, so that listeners could better participate in this absorbing event.

Peter Grahame Woolf

 

Results These became available after the above report was completed on the Wigmore Hall website http://www.wigmore-hall.org.uk/

Competition Results 2001

SINGERS

 

2nd Prize 5000 awarded to Measha Brueggergosman, soprano Canadian b.1977.

3rd Prize 3000 awarded to Tyler Duncan, baritone Canadian b.1975.

4th Prize 1000 awarded to Erik Nelson Werner, bass baritone American b.1973, also awarded the audience prize.

Special Commendation Prize awarded to Daniel Norman, tenor British b.1970.

 

The Jury elected not to award a first prize for singers.

PIANISTS     

1st Prize 4000 Christopher Gould British b.1972

2nd Prize 2000 Catherine Milledge British b.1977


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