Classical: Difficult task of judging the singer, not the song

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THE SECOND Wigmore Hall Song Competition attracted a far higher standard of entrants than the first competition two years ago. After hearing 13 singers perform for 20 minutes each in the semi-final stage last Thursday, I had difficulty making my own choice of two women for the finals.

The Korean soprano Hyunah Yu had bags of confidence and charm, and a faultless coloratura technique. She also presented herself well and chose songs - none of them very long - which suited her.

By contrast, the Hungarian mezzo-soprano Andrea Melath hardly presented herself at all. Yet as soon as she opened her mouth she spelt authority. Hers is a voice with vice, thrilling in its rich colouring and flexibility, from stern chest notes to a ringing top register. She was particularly effective in some Spanish songs by Granados.

In the event, Hyunah Yu was not chosen to go through to the finals by the distinguished jury of singers, pianists and administrators which was chaired, as two years ago, by Graham Johnson. However, two of the men the panel chose would have been my choice for the finals too, though neither matched the extrovert Korean girl as a performer.

The English baritone James Rutherford has a rich voice, which sounded a bit thwarted in Massenet, but opened up in German songs, though his vocal production was elaborately singerly and inclined to be throaty. He's a big chap and looks like a farmer, so he seemed to the manner born when he sang two songs by John Ireland.

The German-born baritone Stephan Loges belied his smaller stature by projecting a sound which easily filled the hall. Here is a baritone voice whose light and honeyed quality suits French songs particularly well. He should make the most of that unusual gift.

The surprise for me was the jury's choice of Hakan Vramsmo, a giant Swede with an amiable personality and a well-rounded, pleasing baritone. But he was wooden on stage and failed to project to the back of the hall. Nor did he choose songs that he really appeared to enjoy singing, and two rather long ones by Schubert were quite boring.

In the finals on Saturday, it was amazing how much better all four singers performed. Vramsmo still under-projected, even in some Stenhammar songs in his own language, though he filled out Ravel's Don Quixote songs. His characterisation, though, appear ed to be learned rather than experienced.

Rutherford sang two songs by Duparc very movingly, sustaining "Phidyle" at a very relaxed tempo, and colouring the dramatic "Le manoir de Rosemonde" with a great sense of identification - the chilling last line was beautifully done.

Andrea Melath found the poise in self-presentation she had lacked earlier, though she chose certain songs - Schumann's "Singet nicht in Trauertonen" and Brahms's "Vergebliches Standchen", for instance - which were too light and frivolous for her personality and vocal character. In three of Bartok's Village Scenes she was stunning and, alone of the four finalists, she was blessed with an accompanist, Imre Patkai, who was a real pianist, with a delightfully lissome touch at the keyboard.

Stephen Loges swept away all earlier doubts, identifying with everything he sang, and characterising each song with such intensity that your attention was riveted. Schumann's five settings of Hans Christian Andersen were full of warmth, and he sustained two of Duparc's most difficult songs, "Extase" and "La vie anterieure", as expertly - and with as much feeling - as any singer I've heard.

Loges certainly deserved his first prize. Vramsmo won the second, Melath the third and Rutherford the fourth, a decision which prompted some disappointed groans from my immediate neighbours.

Only those, like the jury, who heard all the stages of the competition could adequately assess the accompanists, who were in for two prizes. They both went to Americans - Clinton Cormany, first prize, and Cameron Stowe, second. Won't someone now launch a completely separate competition for accompanists?

Adrian Jack