Once again, reader HairMan brings us the lowdown on the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, live (ish) from Wales. Last night he watched the Song Prize Final, which will be broadcast on BBC4 next week.
Although officially it's a separate contest, the Song Prize is widely considered to be a sort of second place. At any rate, the Song winner rarely goes on to take the Big One. Think about that before you turn over the page - you have been warned.............
**WARNING** **SPOILERS AHEAD**
flip over ONLY IF YOU DARE !!!
Turn the clock back some ten years or more ago and I was generally to be found hungover in a student house, surrounded by food in varying states of decomposition, a rancid odour of stale lager / wine / paint stripper in the air and odds were at least someone in the house would be playing "Wonderwall" by Oasis. Fast forward to last night and as I was walking towards St Davids Hall in a heaving vocal crowd I had one of those "funny old world" moments as the vast majority of the crowd (under thirty-five) headed off towards the Millennium Stadium to see Oasis playing, while I sashayed as coolly as I could along with the vast minority of the crowd (over sixty) towards the Song Prize Final.
Pangs of regret? A tiny bit, but I was more of a Lemonheads man myself and as I caught them last year I'm not feeling as though I'm jumping forward forty years or so sooner than I should be. But I would like to see other people of a similar age to myself in opera / concert venues. so Rupert Christiansen please don't try to dissuade attempts to breathe a bit of youth into gigs with strings and winds...
But less of my rambling and onto the Final. First of all my seating arrangements for the evening – a bone of contention I have to say – so it's with a big smile on my face that I can announce that I escaped the spotlight fan of Tier 11 and headed towards Tier 3 – elevated to the side of the stage and luckily not having the camera swinging into view.
Second of all a bit of bad news. Tomislav Lučić, the affable Croat bass who was due to perform in the final had to withdraw due to illness and his place was taken by Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura. This added a touch of intrigue to the final as we now had three of the five finalists for the main competition on stage.
Another point of interest was how Nakamura would react to being placed in the final (apparently) that morning? Grandly was the answer.
Before I get to the review section it's time for another of my disclaimers.... You'll all know that I'm a recent arrival in the world of opera / classical music (three year rookie) and discovering new forms within the genres has been exciting, but also a slow process – and if there's one area where I'm a bigger novice than usual it's in the Recital department (only two previous encounters up to now). So feel free to be understanding and sympathetic to what you're about to read (or stop reading now – it could get painful for us all).
So, after five paragraphs of meandering to the final, and to the first contestant on stage Eri Nakamura. Her programme, a mixture of Wolf, Strauss and Yamada was sung with gusto and feeling. Although I was much closer to the action I was a bit disappointed not be facing the singers as I would have loved to have seen Nakamura's facial expressions during her programme. The highlight to me was the Yamada – and I think for Nakamura also who was genuinely moved by the experience of singing in her mother tongue (or at least that's what the Romantic in me thought).
A strong opening performance and a difficult one to follow. Or it would have been for most of the singers in the competition apart from a select few – and Yuriy Mynenko of the Ukraine is one of them. Now, you'll all know how much difficulty I have in taking to counter tenors – great skill, but the tendency to grate with me after a while. I still think that this will be the case for me when faced with a CT and an orchestra. However, with just a piano for company the purity of Mynenko's voice shone through and I was hooked for his programme of Cesti, Glinka, Rimsky – Korsakov, Silvestrov, Karłowicz and De Curtis songs. Of these I would say the Silvestrov pair of songs were the highlight of his programme – I only hope the BBC don't cut them in favour of the De Curtis "Non ti scordar di me" when they broadcast the final on BBC4 next Friday evening (ps – for those of you doomed to be living in the Rest of the World you can hear the whole competition this evening on BBC Radio 3 at 20.15 UK / 21.15 CET). This was the least favourite of his pieces for me and revealed the side of his voice I'm not too keen on when he forces it and a sea-sick wobbliness appears.
But I was won over by him. And that's saying something.
The third singer of the evening was a singer I'd hoped would have made it through to the main final – Chilean baritone Javier Arrey. Yes, he of the shaky-waky lower register undone by his love of Dvořák. He's a forgiving, loyal bloke as his programme opened with the first five songs from Dvořák's "Písné Biblické"(Biblical Songs). Again there was a slight weakness on show in the lower register, but only barely audible. He is a very generous singer with expression in the bucketful both in voice and face (or the side of the face I could see). After making his way through the Dvořák he finished with a sprightly Ravel (I think – after a while everything becomes one big song in my head – maybe I should have taken a pen) and the Lieder leader (sorry) Schubert. Another excellent performance in this final.
After the interval it was the turn of Jan Martiník to show what he could do. It turned out that what he could do was hypnotize an audience with his immense, yet lyrical bass and make you believe (okay, me at least) that he was indeed French and German such was his grasp of languages and his effortless, audible phrasing. Saint-Saëns would be a very happy composer if he knew that his work was being sung with such joy, and character. As for Schumann and Schubert there are probably many people out there who could point me in the direction of great interpreters of their work, but Martiník sang them well enough to have my ears deafened by the handclapping around me.
Last on stage was Natalya Romaniw of Wales. I'll let others more suited to the world of fashion discuss the merits of her gown (a velvet number that had me thinking of Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind) – I was there for the music. Her programme – six different composers (Purcell, Brahms, Delibes, Rakhmaninov, Britten and Dilys Elwyn – Edwards) covered five different languages and many different characters. It's this love of character that shines through in Romaniw's singing / performing and should stand her in good stead for the remainder of her career. At 22 she has a voice that needs fine tuning and polishing (more in the upper part of her voice, especially when she's forcing the issue), although there are moments when she displays a warmth of tone that hints that she could become a very special singer in the years to come. Overall another excellent programme. Do I get extra points for reigning in my patriotism....?
After the judges left to make their decision I let my eyes wander around the hall – probably three quarters full which is I guess the norms for recitals judging by the others I have gone to) I happened to notice a familiar face in the crowd – Dame Joan Sutherland, the patron of the CSW competition. Actually she'd been announced and applauded at the beginning of the competition but my neighbours had blocked my view of her in their enthusiasm at seeing her. So I thought I'd lie and put it in here.
Now that I've bought a moment's pause in the action it's time for the tension to be increased once again as John Fisher follows his fellow judges (by the obligatory ten second gap) on to the stage and tells us that the "winner, of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize Final 2009 is, from the Czech Republic, Jan Martiník!"
It wasn't much of a surprise – he was a very worthy winner and received a worthy winner's applause. Thankfully there are no runners-up prizes for this competition sparing the awkward situation of two going away empty handed, but the remaining contestants were brought up on stage to receive their thanks from the audience for their night's singing. Overall it was a great night of singing, and the amusing thing was as I left St David's Hall and merged with the Oasis fans I realised that the singers had performed longer than the Mancunians and their "Champagne Supernova".