Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2006
The 51 st Competition for The Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2006
Wigmore Hall, Semi-Final 26 April & Final 28 April 2006
Elizabeth Watts – soprano / Gary Matthewman - piano
Jennifer Johnston – mezzo / Alisdair Hogarth - piano
Martene Grimson – soprano / Paul Plummer - piano
Jacques Imbrailo – baritone / Alisdair Hogarth - piano
Kishani Jayasinghe – soprano / James Baillieu - piano
Semi - Finalists
Amanda Forbes – soprano / David Smith - piano
Andrew Conley – baritone / Kirtsen Simpson - piano
Robin Tritschler – tenor / Nicholas Rimmer - piano
Anna Leese – soprano / Alisdair Hogarth - piano
Sophie Angebault – soprano / Annabel Thwaite - piano
April is the month of the Ferrier Awards and this year's competition has crowned soprano Elizabeth Watts (pictured) as a worthy winner of the £10,000 first prize.
Jury Chairman, Sir Brian McMaster, in his summing up remarks paid tribute to the very high standard of entrants this year: 50 singers in the preliminary round who had to be whittled down to a mere 10 for the public semi-final auditions. In somewhat downbeat mood he expressed his concern as to whether there would be work for such a large number of promising newcomers – of course Sir Brian has been based in Scotland recently where arts funding is suffering its direst neglect – and it is to be hoped that the situation is not as universally gloomy.
Certainly the line-up for the semi finals was an impressive one. Twenty minutes were allotted to each singer to include an aria or song from a work of Bach or Handel, an operatic aria, and two songs, in different languages, from the 19 th , 20 th or 21 st century. They also needed to have a further 20 minute programme available for the final, which needed to contain at least one English song and maintain a proper balance between opera and song.
Making the right choices for these programmes seemed more crucial than ever this year – within the constraints already mentioned, it is important above all to choose pieces that the singer is comfortable with and ready to sing now – this is not the occasion to show repertoire that they may grow into with time.
The winner, Elizabeth Watts had two super programmes, both perfectly planned and executed, showing every facet of her voice and acting skills. Martene Grimson , in second place, is well aware that her strength lies in the gentler repertoire, sung with great beauty of tone, but it was her charmingly coquettish Norina ( Don Pasquale) that probably tipped the scales for her.
Jacques Imbrailo had been near the top of many people's lists going into the final, but chose an over-ambitious programme including one of the most difficult Verdi arias in the canon, (Eri tu che macchiavi from Un ballo in maschera) and Finzi's The clock of the years where every word needs to be crystal clear.
Kishani Jayasinghe sang sensationally in the semi finals, but her voice just seemed to lose a little of its edge in the final – she was last to sing and perhaps nerves played a part? Her pianist, James Baillieu , however was successful in taking the MBF Accompanist's Prize.
The winner of the Song Prize, tenor Robin Tritschler, had been eliminated in the semi-finals. Here he had opened his programme with Bach's Ermuntre dich which is splendidly showy for the pianist, but does little to advance the cause of the singer.* (My regret at not hearing his Finals programme was recompensed by his re-appearance in the YCAT Final Auditions, where the greater time allowance gave him the opportunity to include Un'aura amorosa (Cosi fan tutte) and to demonstrate what a lovely Mozart tenor he is. I hope to see him put this into practice on the opera stage before too long).
Another singer who impressed me in the semi-finals was Sophie Angebault, with perhaps the most distinctive voice in the competition. It's not quite fully settled, but she has another year to complete on the Opera Course at GSMD and I look forward to hearing her again.
Mention must also be made of Lukas Jakobczyk, a 6ft 7in Polish bass, who was present to collect his award for Junior Bursary. I have heard him sing on several occasions under the auspices of British Youth Opera, and he already has his sights on the senior competition.
* SINGERS AND "ACCOMPANISTS" I too attended the semis and finals of the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2006, with a pianist's particular interest in the "Accompanist's Prize" and also in the art of programming for competitions. Elizabeth Watts' victory was a foregone conclusion which gave great satisfaction (q.v. also Elizabeth Watts in Orfeo).
Susan Tomes, whose book Beyond the Notes is one of the best to be found about the working life of young musicians has, in her recent article Vanishing point in The Guardian, returned to the vexed issue of "an injustice that began with Paganini", the proper place of the pianist in a duo. She quotes Schnabel, who wrote " - - the piano part is always the more substantial and the pianist should, from a musical point of view, be the leader - in chamber music as well as songs". He complained that while "a 'star' singer or instrumentalist receives hundreds of pounds for a part, his or her pianist receives perhaps only 10 to 20 or so."
This imbalance which still persists (otherwise Susan Tomes would no longer have needed to write her new article) is reflected, understandably, in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards, a competition which, as is the way nowadays, is also a lucrative public entertainment, attracting large knowledgeable audiences (reflected sometimes in an Audience Prize).
She writes: "The role of pianists working with singers is a special case. Here, pianists are almost always referred to as "accompanists" - - the label is probably unique in the world of music - - "Accompanist" merely tells you that someone else is more important. Playing for song recitals is a great skill, and pianists who are good at it are often not only hugely knowledgeable but also great psychologists - - they often listen better and harder than the soloists".
In many recitals one suspects - or knows - that the pianist has had a critical role in programme building. So what should a Ferrier Awards pianist do to aim for the £2000 Accompanist's Prize? These thoughts come from my pleasure in having heard Nicholas Rimmer, an extrovert pianist who shone throughout his joint programme with Robin Tritschler. They didn't get to the Finals, but Tritschler scooped £2,500 for one song...
Lieder and song recitals have been transformed by specialist scholar "accompanists" like Graham Johnson and Julius Drake, and by the involvement of virtuoso concert pianists - Brendel and Schiff two who come immediately to mind. I trust that their singers split the fees equally?
© Peter Grahame Woolf