London Handel Festival International Singing Competition Final

With an internationally renowned jury, the London Handel Festival International Singing Competition carries a fair amount of clout. Jurors were: David Gowland (chairman, Artistic Director of the Jette Parker Scheme at Covent Garden); Sonia Prina (not ‘Pria’ as the handout suggested, a turbo-charged singer who herself offers a unique energy in Baroque music), Samir Savant (chief executive of St George’s, Bristol), Anna Dennis (soprano) and John McMunn (former tenor, now Chief Executive of the Academy of Ancient Music).

Holding the competition in Handel’s own church, of course, adds an extra layer of authenticity to proceedings. Initially, there were 160 applicants from 25 different countries, whittled down to five (the maximum number of finalists allowed by the competition’s rules). Live-streamed globally, this was Laurence Cummings’ final performance as musical director of the LHF, a post he has held for 25 years.

The first finalist was soprano Hannah De Priest, who made her European debut at the Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alte Musik in 2021 in Carlo Pallavivino’s L‘amazzone corsera ( she was also a finalist in that organisation’s singing competition that year); among other engagements, she has sung the title role in Desmarest’s Circe.

Charlotte Bowden

Her repertoire was excellent, and began with the sprightly ‘With ravish’d ears’ from Alexander’s Feast (a piece heard earlier in this year’s festival). De Priest’s voice is bright but – importantly – not piercing, her diction excellent and she has a clear and impressive trill. Perhaps there was some insecurity to her flourishes (in the manner of a cadenza); but how beautifully this contrasted with the dark shades of ‘Ah perchè, giusto’ from Rodelinda, her three-note descending figure more secure than that from the violins of the London Handel Orchestra. The odd attack was perhaps not as clear as could be, though, and on an emotional level this was not quite convincing, despite some lovely legato passages. Death and vengeance is clearly on the protagonist’s mind in ‘Morrò, a vendicata’. This is an astonishing aria, one featuring an oboe obbligato (the superb James Eastaway). Plenty to admire from De Priest: excellent recitative and an ability to take risks to project the emotion here. Agility met fire; an exchange between solo voice and solo oboe on the word ‘Morirò’ was itself spellbinding.

Critics often disagree with the results of competitions, and this was no exception. Angharad Rowlands, a mezzo in only her second year at the Royal Academy of Music in London, shows huge promise. She was absolutely on fire in ‘Furie terribili’ from Rinaldo, imperious in her gestures as she swept her hand over the audience, firm of both tone and pitch and electric in delivery. The famous ’Scherza infida’ from Ariodante begins with a recitative that was itself as gripping as any aria (’O dei che farò’ – remarkable) before a heart-ending aria proper. The orchestra created a perfectly darkly shaded atmosphere to support Rowlands’ smooth legato. Live in the church, the only question mark was too much use of vibrato, something which seems much less bothersome via the simulcast. A special mention perhaps for the orchestra’s bassoonist, Nathaniel Harrison, not only giving the lower strings a reedy core but whose solo sustained notes spoke volumes. Amazingly, the A1 section of the aria was even more affecting from Rowlands. Finally, ‘O stringerò’ from Teseo, again preceded by a stunning recitative (this is important – recitatives are not just lead-ins to arias, and bringing them to life is a vital skill, as any Mozart afficionado will know). The occasional snatched note did mitigate against this, and the ensuing aria was not 100% accurate, but the spirit was certainly strong. Angharad Rowlands is certainly one to watch.

Isabelle Haile

Bass-baritone William Frost has a terrific voice, which shows no thinning of tone up top; he does have a tendency to deliver almost cartoony physical gestures, however. He offered the largest number of pieces: five. In the first piece, though, he was not totally clear of delivery (’Well ich den Hirten schlage’; Because I will smite the shepherd, shorn of its short recitative). Good to hear some Siroe for sure, and with it some Italian: ’Se il mio paterno amore,’ a choice which showed the strength of Frost’s high register, certainly, and the passages with strings were accurate. It was a good choice to follow this with the slow, laden ‘How art thou fall’n’ from Esther. Frost did perhaps over-emote somewhat here; interesting to have the similarly slow ’To pow’r immortal’ from Belshazzar immediately following, but Frost could have been smoother of delivery there. Finally, an excerpt from the little-known Deidamia (HWV 42), ‘Degno più di tua beltà,’ bright but cruelly short as a balance for the preceding two slow items; and just a hint of vocal tiredness came across here.

Soprano Charlotte Bowden, a 2022 Jerwood Artist and graduate of the Royal College of Music Opera Studio (also an alumnus of the Verbier Festival Atelier Lyrique) has a perfect voice for Handel. Her diction was the best of the evening, but one aspect that does not come across in the video stream is that her voice felt somewhat weak (microphone placement I am sure has something to do with this …). Her decorations for the A1 section of ’The morning lark’ from Semele were perfectly judged, though. From Teseo, ‘Ira, sdegno … O stringero’ found tempo changes well negotiated; perhaps some of the phrasing was not as smooth as could be. Bowden concluded with one of Handel’s very greatest arias: ‘Pianggero’ (preceded by the recitative, ’E pur così’). No faulting the orchestra’s exquisite web of sound; perhaps Bowden could have just been a touch more inside the music.

Previous impressions of Bowden have been positive, as Barbarina at Glyndebourne in 2022 (a great ‘Pin aria’) and as Susanna in the same opera, but at Holland Park as part of a Young Artists’ performance the previous year. There is no doubt that, like Rowlands, a bright future lies ahead for Charlotte Bowden.

Finally, soprano Isabelle Haile, who has most recently sung in George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence at Zürich. Haile’s soprano seemed warmer in timbre in the church itself than it does on the stream. In her performance of an excerpt from the Dixit Dominus, HWV 232, her melismas were delivered with a lovely, open voice, but could occasionally sound a bit exercise-like. Haile was joined by cellist Katherine Sherman for the magical aria from Alcina, ‘Credete al mio dolore’; there are some cripplingly difficult passages for just voice and cello and just occasionally, Haile’s top note attacks were less than accurate. Finally, from Trionfo, ‘Un pensiero nemico,’ an exercise in vocal stamina. Haile has an astonishing lung capacity, heard at its best in this fast and furious number.

The attentiveness of the London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings was superb throughout; the five finalists could not have asked for finer support.

After some deliberation, the jury decided on the following:

Winner: William Frost

Joint Second Prize: Isabelle Haile and Charlotte Bowden

Audience Prize: Isabelle Haile

Colin Clarke

Music: Georg Frederick Handel

Hannah de Priest (soprano):

Alexander’s Feast, HWV 75: With Ravish’d Ears

Rodelinda, HWV 19: Ah! perché, giusto ciel

Teseo, HWV 9: Morirò, ma vendicata

Angharad Rowlands (mezzo):

Rinaldo, HWV 7: Furie terribili

Ariodante, HWV 33: Scherza infida

Teseo, HWV 9: Ira, sdegno … O stringerò

William Frost (bass-baritone):

Brockes-Passion, HWV 48: Weil ich den Hirten schlage

Sirce, HWV 24: Se il mio paterno amore

Esther, HWV 50: How art thou fall’n

Belshaazar, HWV 61: To pow’r immortal

Deidamia, HWV 42: Dagno più di tua beltà

Charlotte Bowden (soprano):

Semele, HWV 58: The morning lark

Teseo, HWV 9: Ira, sdegno … O stringerò

Giulio Cesare, HWV 17: E pur così … Piangerò

Isabelle Haile (soprano):

Dixit Domnus, HWV 232: Tecum principio

Judas Maccabaeus, HWV 63: So shall the lute and harp

Alcina, HWV 34: Credete al mio dolore

Il trionfo, HWV 46a: Un pensiero nemico di pace

Patrick Trelawny (presenter); London Handel Orchestra / Laurence Cummings

St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London.

19 April 2024

Top image: William Frost

All photos by Craig Fuller.