International Song Competition, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The Wigmore Hall International Song Competition, held every two years, is almost what it says it is. Almost, because it's for performers, not composers. And not a competition to find the best singer, but the best song recitalist. Ultimately, I would choose the singer, if any, I really wanted to cross the road to listen to for two hours. But that isn't the criterion of the jury, I suspect, who seek the singer most comfortable in the highly cultivated field of art song – not just German Lieder, French Mélodie, Vaughan Williams or whatever.

After the semi-final stage last Thursday, I would probably have agreed with the jury's choice of three out of the four finalists who gave half-hour recitals on Saturday. The Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan had a beautiful voice, faultlessly produced, but stood, impassive, and expressed very little at all until his last song in the final recital, "Black Max", by William Bolcom, when, at long last, he made an effort to make his voice take on character.

The British tenor Daniel Norman was equally inhibited, though the reason was more to do with the small size of his voice. He has actually recorded several Schubert songs for the Hyperion Edition, and yet he seemed inadequately equipped for this composer. His strength was in French and certain English songs – he sang Poulenc's "C" and some Fauré songs beautifully. He was uncomfortable as a performer, however, and in his final recital adopted postures which seemed learned rather than a natural expression of what he had to communicate.

The American bass baritone Erik Nelson Werner was much more at ease and chose a programme as a continuous sequence except for one short break in the middle. But what a dreary programme it was, but for two Vaughan Williams songs at the beginning. And though Werner's voice was well produced and completely consistent, it was plain and unexciting. He is obviously intelligent and chose the best pianist, Kiai Nara, from Japan, who contributed a great deal to Werner's confidence.

Alas, my favourite singer, the Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, had a mousy pianist as her partner, and chose for her final recital some extremely challenging songs which required a much stronger presence at the keyboard. Berlioz's "Le spectre de la rose" was never meant for the piano, and as an opening item, it could have been suicide, since it cruelly exposes the voice in a melody of tensile elegance which easily snaps under strain. Brueggergosman sustained it pretty well, but showed the real quality of her exciting dramatic soprano in three of Wagner's "Wesendonk Songs".

No one can predict a musical career, but this is a voice that should grow, and it's already a rich and colourful instrument. In the semi-finals she made Schubert's dramatic ballad "Der Zwerg" an experience of thrilling intensity, and were I an artists' agent, I'd be seriously interested. There were fears, though, that she wasn't what a song competition jury was looking for.

After protracted deliberations, no first prize was awarded, but Brueggergosman got second, Tyler third, and Werner fourth. The pianist's prize went to Gould, a discreet and accomplished player, but not as strong as Kiai Nara.

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