This time there were more than 140 applicants, from all over the globe, and the business of whittling them down to the more manageable 34 who officially participated in this week’s two preliminary stages and semi-final must have been troublesome enough, without even considering the efforts of the distinguished jury – including such luminaries as Dames Margaret Price, Ann Murray, and Anne Evans, as well as Sir Thomas Allen, Wolfgang Holzmair and Graham Johnson – in arriving at the four finalists who performed this evening.
The rules of engagement for both sides of the footlights in this competition make for interesting reading – a minimum of three languages in each of the three (progressively longer) recitals leading up to and including the final; obligatory German in each of the recitals and some equally obligatory Schubert somewhere along the line; no applause from the audience for individual items – and go a long way towards establishing an atmosphere of high seriousness which at times verges on the devotional. This works to some singers’ benefit considerably more than others, and I can’t entirely avoid the feeling that those of a more, shall we say, emotionally outgoing, theatrical stripe of performance are at something of a disadvantage from the word go.
I certainly felt this to be true of Erin Morley, who was the sole surviving soprano - indeed the only one of the finalists who wasn’t a baritone; six tenors, twelve other sopranos, four mezzos and eight other baritones having bitten the dust already in the earlier stages – and the only singer to venture repertoire in more than the minimum three languages. She was also the only one to offer anything at all in Italian, veering perilously close to the frowned-upon world of opera with Rossini’s La fioraia fiorentina, embracing such unwonted interlopers as (mild) coloratura and a pair of whizz-bang high notes to boot. All this, coupled with a sharply drawn sense of characterisation throughout and much additional physical gesture and facial mobility, I suspect set any number of the resident Beckmessers’ slates a-scratching. I thought she was wonderful, with the kind of technique that can do pretty much anything, and a basic vocal quality that tends to the soubrettish, but with plenty of tonal flesh to warm things up. Indeed, she invited comparisons for me with the young Anna Netrebko, whom I first remember hearing here live in the mid 1990s singing Mussorgsky’s Nursery Suite, two of the funniest songs of which – The Nanny and The Beetle - Ms. Morley ventured as her opening items. I cannot judge the excellence or otherwise of her Russian, but I most certainly salute her unique inclusion of it, and regard her performance of Rachmaninov’s Dream as one of the finest assumptions heard all night; that, and the exquisite simplicity with which she delivered Mozart’s coolly doleful Abendempfindung involving a degree of control Kathleen Battle might have envied. The worst thing I could find to say about her is that she is the wrong body-type to affect a clinging sleeveless black sheath dress such as she ill-advisedly wore: but then, none of the men were strangers to the pies either; they just got away with it by wearing stock evening dress that covers a multitude of gastronomic sins. In the event, she came third, where I had pegged her as either first or second. Thank God I don’t gamble.
The one singer who I thought was likeliest to give the soprano a run for her money, and quite possibly outstrip her, did in fact win: Marcus Farnsworth, whose opening Schubert Nachtstück was mesmerizingly rapt and withdrawn, and who made most of his best effects by going to the opposite of Erin Morley’s general approach and reining in. He also offered a quite prodigious amount of dynamic and coloristic variety. The voice I could scarcely credit as that of a baritone at all to start with, so lightly unemphatic and tenorial it sounded: but the impression wore off with the more declamatory – indeed, exclamatory - Poulenc settings, which alas verged on the hectoring. Indeed, I don’t think any of the singers had any real success with the endless procession of French chansons we heard, either lacking the necessary blague to get away with the larkier ones, or finding the enigmatic mood and abstruse underlying poetry of the serious ones unfathomable, though Erin Morley’s school-of-Crespin (physically), school-of-Mesplé (vocally) account of Poulenc’s Violin worked on its own terms. Farnsworth also engaged in a fair amount of otiose physical mime to accompany Loewe’s Hinkende jamben (Limping Iambics), including actually limping, not a thing you’ll often see on the recital platform, thank God, but the song is a brief squib, and the audience tittered dutifully. He really came into his own with the English songs, two by Butterworth, and spell-bindingly hypnotic accounts of Ivor Gurney’s Sleep and Britten’s Last Rose of Summer. These and the Schubert won him the prize, without doubt. Refinement sometimes does pay…
I suppose somewhat perversely, I thought that Benedict Nelson had the finer voice considered simply as instrument: really warm and glowingly burnished, with absolutely even emission, effortless in production and richly baritonal, the sort of voice you could lie down and wallow in. But his involvement with the material was strictly limited it seemed to me, and his overall manner best exemplified by his performance of Die zwei blauen Augen from Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, where the three separate stanzas are treated by the composer to three rather different musical moods, but which emerged here as one undifferentiated lament, albeit one sung with effortless disdain for the piece’s crucifying vocal range. As a technician, Nelson is nigh-on flawless: but as his unrewarding trudge through Fauré, Debussy and Duparc showed, he needs material better suited to his present strengths (you don’t need a voice, much less this type of sonorously upholstered one, to sing most French songs: just a certain verbal dexterity and, above all, attitude).
Indeed, he would have been better off with the brace of Brahms songs sung by the resoundingly- named American, Sidney Outlaw (from La fanciulla del West, perhaps?) whose rather drier, more rattly and mask-orientated tone made heavy weather of them. Outlaw bravely essayed Erlkönig, with an accompaniment not so much agitated as Anschluss, but ran into the usual problems of characterising the three participants, not persuasively resolved by adopting different platform positions for each one, in the process looking as if some poor schizophrenic was having a tremendous argument with himselves. But every dog has his day: and Outlaw’s account of a most strikingly beautiful, sparely minimal 2007 song by Wayne Oquin set to words by Martin Luther King, I’ve seen the promised land, was heart-stopping in its unaffected simplicity. The following spiritual and Copland’s Zion’s Walls were similarly moving, so that here, on his home territory musically, one could forgive the attacks of grand, head-flung-back Jessye Norman-esque eye-rolling ecstasy that characterised his stance during earlier postludes. Less art, more matter, as Gertrude says pithily. Poor love, he came fourth.
Ralph Kohn, the pharmaceutical Mycaenas behind all this, made a long speech at the end, after an hour’s deliberations by the jury on which he also sat, and made the only public pitch I’ve ever heard in my life in a concert hall extolling the benefits of Beta-blockers, which it seems his company developed. John Gilhooly, the Wigmore Hall’s Director, then made the prize-giving announcements with the assembled judges behind him (Margaret Price is a mere shadow of her former self, the rest unchanged) and the cheque for £10,000 was duly handed over to Marcus Farnsworth. Benedict Nelson came 2nd (£5,000) and Erin Morley 3rd (£2,500). The prize for the best accompanist went to someone we hadn’t heard in the final, James Ballieu, though the general standard had struck me as high throughout, with none of the splashy approximations we’re just as likely to hear in actual, professional recitals in the very same venue.
One thing Ralph Kohn said may be quoted in conclusion. Speaking perhaps more prophetically than he knew, he attempted to comfort in advance the inevitable “losers” by quoting the example of Johann Sebastian Bach, who became the Kantor of St. Thomas’ in Leipzig in 1723, only after the first two choices – Telemann and Graupner – had both turned the job down. Sometimes, he said, it happens that the best candidate comes third. So it’s nice to know that in a world of uncertain, shifting values, some things never change……