|Illustration by Dean Lewis|
BBC Cardiff Singer of the World is unique amongst top international singing competitions in offering contestants the additional chance to compete for a Song Prize. Art songs make very different demands on the singer from operatic roles, although the disciplines are related; obviously both entail the ability to convey an enormous range of emotional states with the utmost musical and vocal skill. But creating and delivering a successful programme of art songs is an art in itself, requiring the singer to bring their most intimate and refined, poetic sensibilities to the fore.
The first contestant in this year’s fourth song recital, the 30-year-old German bass Sebastian Pilgrim, chose to present a classic Lieder programme of the kind the instigators of the prize presumably had in mind back in 1989 – when it was known as the Lieder Prize. The touchstone of this repertoire is the German romantics, whose intense, highly concentrated melding of music and poetry by figures such as Goethe effectively created an entire genre of lyrical-dramatic expression in miniature. Pilgrim offered songs by Brahms and Schubert that many in the audience would have known, albeit more usually sung by higher voice-types than his own, deep and powerfully resonant instrument.
Starting with ‘O Tod’, the third of Brahms’ Serious Songs (actually a setting of quotations from the Bible), and building to a chilling climax with Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’, the programme was thoughtfully constructed with an overarching narrative in the traditional way, and executed with a dashing, 19th century ardour; a little rough-hewn and over-confident in places, but with lovely expressive touches. The inclusion of ‘Motto’, a Shakespeare setting by Wolfgang Fortner (1907-1987), may not have pleased modernist refuseniks, but I found it added welcome further colour to the programme; it is a great pity that so few singers seem willing to try less familiar, but arguably equally rewarding repertoire from the 20th century.
However, thankfully, the Cardiff Singer organisers recognised that there is more to art song than the German romantic tradition, and, in 2001, the prize was re-named the Song Prize to ensure that candidates felt confident to present different repertoire. This fourth recital of the 2015 competition showcased a wonderful variety of approaches to art song constituting a wider ‘art of song’ if you like, and encompassing folk and popular songs – altogether fully exploiting the brilliant virtuosity of the two official accompanists, Simon Lepper and Llŷr Williams.
Mezzo-soprano Marina Pinchuk (aged 32, from Belarus) proved not so effective at classic Lieder characterisation and dialogue in her own Brahms and Schubert, but she felt more at home in two Rachmaninov Songs from his Op 4 and 14 respectively. ‘Oh no, I beg you do not leave’ and ‘I wait for you’, both sung in Russian, were certainly better suited to her rich voice – albeit they were performed with a lack of colour variation. That came with a final swerve into the Caribbean via Catalonia, as a gutsy performance of Montsalvatge’s ‘Canto Negro’ showed that she too was willing to step outside the repertoire box.
The fourth contestant, the 29-year-old Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann, was greatly anticipated by an audience hungry for a light, high voice. Her programme was carefully arranged around a theme of poets, flowers and romantic reverie, with songs by Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Schumann and Debussy. This impressive array of composers would appear to guarantee stylistic variety but, whilst Mühlemann’s voice and presentation were very lovely, there seemed just too great a preponderance of the dreamy and reflective for my taste; at least, I felt the general floatiness seemed to accentuate a subtle tentativeness and vice versa. But there were fine touches in each song. Richard Strauss’s ‘Ich wollt ein Straüsslein binden’, for example, from the Brentano Lieder, had lilt and sparkle in the top register especially.
For me, the clear winner was the preceding, third contestant, Jongmin Park; a 28-year-old bass from South Korea,who did indeed win the round to go through to Friday’s final. At first glance, his programme appeared challengingly unusual. He started with a romantic art song by one of South Korea’s premier composers, Soon-ae Kim (1920-2007) – who also happened to be a woman. Entitled ‘Because you are here’, Park sang in Korean with exquisite richness and sensitivity. Continuing with Ravel’s song cycle, Don Quichotte à Dulchinée, he proved a fine musician, engaging with his excellent pianist, Simon Lepper, and the audience with a natural generosity of spirit. These three songs are quite high-lying for a bass, but Park was as fluid in the upper register as the low, with a colourfully precise sense of pitch, used to enhance Ravel’s semitone slippage in the middle ‘Chanson épique’. Far from stepping out of the zone with a final rendition of ‘Danny Boy’, Park held the audience rapt with a performance that eschewed sentimentality for simple warmth.
After the recital, it was announced that Park would join the following singers for the Final at St David’s Hall this coming Friday, June 19:
Nadine Koutcher (soprano, 32, from Belarus)
Amartuvshin Enkhbat (baritone, 29, from Mongolia)
Ilker Arcayürek (tenor, 30, from Turkey)
Aviva Fortunata (soprano, 27, from Canada)