Singing competitions are inherently dramatic, whether it’s Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel slugging it out for the title of Cardiff Singer of the World in 1989 (Terfel got the consolation prize), or an obscure young Chinese textile worker named Guang Yang winning the mezzo title, and becoming an international star overnight.
The Kathleen Ferrier awards get less media attention, but the cachet for winning one (as Terfel did) is no less great. If you look at the winners over the past few years, you can see how astute the juries have been: Emma Bell and Sally Matthews in 1998 and 1999 respectively, Jonathan Lemalu in 2002, Kate Royal in 2004 – and look at them now.
This year’s winner - a 25-year-old South African named Sarah-Jane Brandon – is almost certainly one of tomorrow’s great divas. She’s large - if not quite in the Deborah Voigt (‘Little Black Dress’) league – but the way she physically projects herself, with comical/tragical eloquence in her eyes and hands, recalls the days of silent cinema. And for one so young, her artistry is astonishingly mature. A born recitalist, she has an instinctive understanding of the requirements of this difficult game, bringing out the character of each song, and colouring and weighing every phrase with fastidious authority. She did lovely things with songs by Charpentier, Canteloube, and Clara Schumann, and her delivery of ‘Dove sono’ from ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ was magnificent. She may still be at the Royal College of Music, but Covent Garden surely beckons.
I was surprised by the other awards from a panel including such seasoned veterans as James Bowman, Sally Burgess, and Valerie Masterson. The German soprano Angela Bic, who won the ‘song’ award, has velvet power and a very even tone from top to bottom, but her Mozart was devoid of all character; her comfort zone was Verdi and Rachmaninov, and she’s clearly a Wagnerite in the making. More surprising was the runner-up award to the Romanian soprano Monica Bancos. She too has bags of power, and shapes her songs gracefully, but she has a very distracting secondary resonance: you almost think she has two voices going at once. If I had been handing out prizes, one would have gone to the Australian baritone Derek Welton for some glorious Bach, and for a towering performance as Verdi’s Falstaff; the other would have been split between Caroline Macphie and Anna Devin (who dished herself by attempting a coloratura aria as yet beyond her).