The competition was inaugurated in 1956, three years after the untimely
death of the great English contralto, with the aim of honouring Ferrier’s
memory by encouraging and supporting — in the words of this year’s jury
chairman, Graham Johnson — ‘open-hearted and communicative vocal talent,
promising young singers who somehow or other bore the Ferrier stamp while in no
sense being imitators’. Held annually, it was originally restricted to
singers from the Empire and Commonwealth but is now open to any singer under
the age of 29 who has studied for at least one year in the UK or Republic of
Preliminary rounds require candidates to demonstrate their accomplishment in
song and opera, in varied languages, and to perform music written in the past
and during the last fifty years. In the Final, they are required to present at
least one English song and to balance song and opera in a recital lasting not
more than 20 minutes.
Programming is, therefore, crucial. And, this is where the sole male
competitor came unstuck. Hungarian tenor Gyula Rab demonstrated a strong,
handsome voice in his final item, ‘Ecco, ridente in cielo’ from Rossini’s
Il barbiere di Siviglia, with pleasing Italianate colouring, but this
was preceded by two rather leaden Liszt songs from Tre sonetti di Petrarca
in which, despite communicating well with accompanist Paul McKenzie, the
28-year-old Rab sounded under pressure and strained at the top. More
problematic still was Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Sweeter than
roses’. Rab worked hard — but therein lay the problem, for the result was
cumbersome and overly weighty, lacking the necessary elasticity and cleanness
which the idiom requires. Rab could not hide his own disappointment with his
performance but he can take heart that he has an exciting summer ahead: he
returns to the Glyndebourne Festival, where he was a Chorus member in 2013, for
Carmen and Poliuto, taking the role of A Christian and
understudying Nearco in the latter.
That left five sopranos to battle it out. Soraya Mafi had the difficult task
of opening the evening. The 26-year-old graduated from the Royal College of
Music’s International Opera School in 2014 and makes her debut with ENO in
The Pirates of Penzance later this month, but that did not stop the nerves
kicking in and Mafi seemed somewhat disengaged in Mozart’s ‘L’amerÚ
sarÚ costante’ from Il re pastore; despite the warm shine and
stylish decorations she did not consistently communicate the heartfelt
sincerity of Aminta’s devotions. However, in Hugo Wolf’s ‘Er ist’s’
from the Mˆrike-Liederbuch Mafi’s soprano bloomed thrillingly to
announce the arrival of spring, and the fine-spun phrases of Julius
Harrison’s ‘Philomel’ were crystalline above accompanist Ian Tindale’s
magical rippling accompaniment. Tindale, who conjured tremendous energy in the
Wolf song and whose introduction to Liszt’s ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ was
wonderfully eloquent, was the deserving recipient of the Accompanist’s Prize.
In the Liszt song, Mafi again demonstrated impressive technical control and
powerful projection while in her final item, Strauss’s
‘Fr¸hlingsstimmen’, her bright gleam came into its own as she raced
through the glittery roulades with stylish panache.
Suzanne Fischer, a 27-year-old Britten-Pears Young Artist, brought drama to
‘Villes’, the first of three songs from Britten’s Les
Illuminations, but found the rapidly enunciated text a challenge too far,
though in the song’s less hasty final episode she revealed an appealing lower
register. The third song of Britten’s cycle, ‘Phase and Antique’, was
more composed, but Fischer had not quite mastered the interpretative demands.
She began her programme with Constanze’s ‘Ach, ich liebte’ from
Mozart’s Die Entf¸hrung aus dem Serail, in which a variety of vocal
colours persuasively conveyed emotion, while Schubert’s ‘Suleika II’ saw
both Fischer and her accompanist Nicholas Fletcher scale the virtuosic
challenges impressively, demonstrating clarity of line and considerable
dexterity respectively. Fischer was a suave and confident Musetta in ‘Quando
m’en vo soletta’ from La bohËme, her waltzing phrases blending
coquettish charm and tenderness.
Given the predominance of soprano voices, the decision by 24-year-old Gemma
Lois Summerfield to open her programme with two less familiar songs by Sibelius
was a welcome one. In ‘Diamanten pÂ Marssnˆn’ (A diamond on the March
snow) her rich velvety tone was alluringly set against Sebastian Wybrew’s
sparkling accompaniment. Summerfield shaped the phrases with assurance and
control. To my uneducated ears, her Finnish sounded idiomatic and in ‘Flickan
kom ifrÂn sin ‰lsklings mˆte’ she told related the tale of the girl who,
returning from meeting her lover, must confront her angry mother most
engagingly. Similarly, each verse of Mendelssohn’s strophic ‘Hexenlied’
was nuanced as she whipped through the imagery of broomsticks, goats, dragons
and Beelzebub. Here, and in Copland’s ‘Heart! We will forget him!’ from
12 Poems of Emily Dickinson, Summerfield moved with effortless legato
between registers, her lovely burnished lower voice complemented by a glossy
top. Frau Fluth’s monologue from Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von
Windsor was stunningly capricious and sparkling — a highlight of the
Alice Privett, a 27-year-old graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, opened
the post-interval sequence with Massenet’s ‘Je suis encore tout
Ètourdie’; she got confidently into her stride and made a good effort to
convey Manon’s confusion when she meets Lescaut as she journeys to the
convent, without really capturing the young girl’s naÔve vulnerability.
Likewise, the hymnal lyricism of ‘O waly, waly’ (arranged Britten) eluded
Privett and her pianist Chad Vindin. In Messiaen’s ‘L’amour de
piroutcha’ from the song cycle Harawi, however, they found their
niche and showed great composure, Privett’s silky phrasing supported by
Vindin’s subtly understated accompaniment, conveying the song’s strange
mystical quality. Handel’s ‘Let the bright seraphim’ had a brassy
brightness and allowed Privett to show off her breath control and neat trills.
Prunier’s aria ‘Chi il bel sogno’ from Puccini’s La rondine
was the wonderfully persuasive opening item in the final programme of the
evening, presented by the Armenian soprano Tereza Gevorgyan. The 27-year-old is
currently studying at the National Opera Studio — supported by Opera North,
the Amar-Franses and Foster-Jenkins Trust and Opera Les Azuriales — and in
this impressively assured rendition (accompanied by Fletcher, who did double
duty during the evening) Gevorgyan employed judicious rubato and produced a
lovely vocal sheen. Manon’s ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’ (Massenet)
was dazzling as Gevorgyan span the vocal line ravishingly. Here, and in ‘How
fair this spot’ by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Tell me, what in the
shade of the branches’, she showed that she has tremendous stage presence.
Bridge’s ‘Love went a-riding’ was an exciting rip-roaring close.
The panel of judges awarded Second Prize to Mafi, while Summerfield — the
youngest competitor — swept the board taking both the Song Prize, for her
interpretation of Sibelius, and First Prize. I’d have had a hard time picking
a winner from this impressive line-up.
Artists and programmes:
Soraya Mafi (soprano), Ian Tindle (piano): Mozart ‘L’amerÚ sarÚ
costante’, Wolf ‘‘Er ist’s’, Harrison ‘Philomel’, Liszt ‘Oh!
Quands je dors’, J. Strauss ‘Fr¸hlingsstimmen Waltz’.
Suzanne Fletcher (soprano), Nicholas Fletcher (piano): Mozart ‘Ach,
ich liebte’, Britten ‘Villes’, ‘Phrase and Antique’, Schubert
‘Suleika II’, Puccini ‘Quando m’en vo soletta’, Bridge ‘Love went
Gemma Lois Summerfield (soprano), Sebastien Wybrew (piano): Sibelius
‘Diamanten pÂ Marssnˆn’ and ‘Flickan kom ifrÂn sin ‰lsklings
mˆte’, Mendelssohn ‘Hexenlied’, Duparc ‘Chanson triste’, Copland
‘Heart! We will forget him’, Nicolai ‘Nun eilt herbei’.
Alice Privett (soprano), Chad Vindin (piano): Massenet ‘Je suis
encore’, Britten ‘O waly waly’, Messiaen ‘L’amour de piroutcha’,
Handel ‘Let the bright seraphim’.
Gyula Rab (tenor), Paul McKenzie (piano): Liszt ‘Benedetto sia ‘l
giorno’ and ‘I’vidi in terra angelici costumi’, Britten/Purcell
‘Sweeter than roses’, Rossini ‘Ecco ridente e celo’.
Tereza Gevorgyan (soprano), Nicholas Fletcher (piano): Puccini ‘Chi
il bel sorgno’, Massenet ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’, Rachmaninov
‘How fair this spot’ (Zdes’ khorosho), Tchaikovsky ‘Tell me, what in
the shade of the branches?’, Bridge ‘Love went a-riding’.
image_description=Gemma Lois Summerfeld
product_title=Kathleen Ferrier Awards, Wigmore Hall
product_by=By Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Gemma Lois Summerfeld