The Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2012

First held in 1956, following Ferrier’s tragically early death on 22 April
1952, the competition has supported many young singers in their early years of
training and, since 2009, has also offered additional support to its prize
winners in the form of sponsoring a series of recitals around the UK, giving
these singers public platforms to develop their recital skills. Recent prize
recipients have included Emma Bell, Kate Royal, Elizabeth Watts, Martene
Grimson, Andrew Kennedy and Robert Murray, and many others who have gone on to
win considerable international acclaim.

The demands of the competition are rigorous: both first round and semi-final
must include an operatic aria and art song, and singers must show appreciation
of the musical and technical characteristics of different periods and styles.
The final must contain at least one song in English and present a balance
between opera and song.

Natalya-3.gifNatalya Romaniw [Photo by Patrick Allen, Opera Omnia, courtesy of Hazard Chase Limited]

This year’s winner, Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw, offered a daring
programme which played to her strengths — a big, richly coloured tone and a
confident, mature dramatic presence. Opening with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Atchevo
eta pryezhdye nye znala’ from Iolanta she exhibited a beautiful
vocal lustre and a natural instinct for phrase shape, carefully modulating the
dynamic expression to communicate textual meaning. Strauss’s ‘St‰ndchen’
showed off the glistening, exhilarating sheen of her upper notes, and its
power, while the same composer’s ‘Ruhe meine seele’ demonstrated that
Romaniw can sustain a centred, pleasing line in the lower register too.
Jonathan Dove’s ‘Between your sheets’ was imaginative and adventurous
programming, and here Romaniw adopted a more intimate tone, sensitively
conveying the words. But, it was back into extrovert mode for Britten’s
‘Tell me the Truth about Love’: fortunately, she did not indulge in cabaret
hyperbole, but enjoyed sharing the wit and humour of the song with the
audience, in an appealing, engaging rendition which deservedly garnered the
song prize for Romaniw too.

Baritone Ben McAteer and soprano Ruth Jenkins shared second prize. I felt
that McAteer’s communication of the text, as he effortlessly embodied a range
of characters in different dramatic and emotional situations, put him in the
running for first prize. Whether outpouring Romantic angst or relishing the
ironic wit of Classicism, every word was crystal clear and every musical
gesture perfectly matched to the sentiments of the text. The gradation of
dramatic moods in Schumann’s ‘Belsazar’ was superb, the phrase endings
beautifully crafted, while ‘Kogda bÔ zhizn domashnim krugom’ from
Eugene Onegin demonstrated the relaxed flexibility of McAteer’s warm
baritone. Hamilton Harty’s setting of the traditional Irish song, ‘My Lagan
Love’, made a moving conclusion to his programme; the tempo was audaciously
slow, McAteer’s dark pianissimo deeply expressive, and the
rhetorical power of the song instinctively conveyed.

Ruth Jenkins demonstrated variety of tone and a broad tessitura in an
interesting programme which embraced Schubert, Wolf, Handel, James Macmillan
and the Icelandic composer, Sigf˙s Einarsson. Seeming a little nervous at the
start, Jenkins struggled to control her vibrato in the long sustained notes
that open Schubert’s ‘Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen’, but she did
show that she knows how to build through individual phrases to shape coherent
larger structures. Her intonation settled, however, and Einarsson’s
‘Draumalandio’ was notable for its wistful, gentle ambience. Gaining
confidence, Jenkins brought a translucent quality to the tranquil rocking
intervals of Macmillan’s ‘The Children’. She skilfully controlled the
repetitive vocal line, which, like a child’s song, employs only a few basic
intervals, tenderly conveying the innocence of the child in contrast to the
more sophisticated gestures of the sparse piano accompaniment.

There were three other finalists. Soprano Eleanor Dennis demonstrated plenty
of sparkle in ‘Come Scoglio’ and a burnished lower range in Britten’s
‘Nocturne’ from On This Island. She blended folky gestures with
virtuosity in Eva Dell’Acqua’s ‘Villanelle’ but, while this was an
accurately performed programme Dennis, in the difficult ‘opening slot’, did
not always have the stage presence to fully engage the audience. Dennis’s
accompanist, Craig White, was awarded the accompanist’s prize.

The same lack of stage impact also characterised soprano Robyn Allegra
Parton’s performance. Although her rendering of Quilter’s ‘Love’s
Philosophy’ was exuberant, and ‘My heart leaps up’ from Britten’s
Albert Herring carefully shaped, Parton’s performance was accurate,
poised and pleasing rather than exciting and impactful.

The limitations of the countertenor repertoire inevitably affected Russell
Harcourt’s programming; but while he attempted to introduce variety,
juxtaposing Handel with Heggie, Harcourt’s light graceful voice ultimately
lacked diversity of colour. This proved problematic in Bach’s renowned
‘Erbarme dich’ from the St. Matthew Passion, where he was unable
to impose his presence in the strophic repetitions, following the long piano
‘between-verse’ passages. A burgeoning theatricality was evident in
Handel’s ‘Vivi tiranno’ from Rodelinda, however, as well as
superb breath control and an effective rhetorical style.

I’m sure we will be hearing much more from all these accomplished singers
in future. And, the centenary celebrations continue at the Wigmore Hall on 28
June, when six recent winners — singers Sarah-Jane Brandon, Anna StÈphany,
Ben Johnson, Jonathan McGovern, and pianists James Baillieu and John Read —
come together to perform a programme of songs, duets and ensembles from
Kathleen Ferrier’s repertoire, devised by Graham Johnson.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Kathleen Ferrier
product_title=The Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2012
product_by=Wigmore Hall, London Friday 27 April 2012
product_id=Above: Kathleen Ferrier