Kathleen Ferrier Awards | Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The Kathleen Awards have commemorated one of Britain's best loved singers since 1956. There is less razzmatazz attached than to the much more recent Cardiff Singer of the World, but the first prize is prestigious and worth £10,000, the second £5,000. I heard nine semi- finalists last Wednesday, and would have chosen all but two of the five finalists heard on Friday. It was disappointing that an unusually interesting tenor, Andries Cloete, didn't make it. He had a ringing, though smallish voice, clear words and a striking face - the last attribute very important for a singer, but rare. He communicated.

But as it turned out, the best of the finalists won. Gillian Keith is a small girl with a fresh lyric-soprano voice which is true and flexible. She outclassed her rivals with her graceful phrasing in "Ruhe sanft" from Mozart's opera Zaide, and in her sense of style, including delicious French nasals and nifty articulation in songs by Poulenc. In Debussy's "Apparition" she encompassed a wide dynamic range and top notes, fortissimo or pianissimo, to order. She did Strauss's difficult Ophelia songs better than most seasoned professionals, though like all the competitors, she has had a fair bit of professional performing already.

The second prize was a surprise, going to a rather stiff baritone, Roland Wood, whom I wouldn't have chosen even to go into the finals. He looked like a farmer's boy, and acting was obviously an effort. The voice, too, was reluctant to escape from his abdomen. Still, he pulled off an aria from Mozart's Figaro quite stylishly, and at the end of his half-hour programme, he unbent a good deal in Rodrigo's dying aria from Verdi's Don Carlos.

More striking was the bass-baritone, Timothy Mirfin. He had a splendidly rich voice, well projected, plus agility. In the semi-final, his runs in a Handel aria ("The Lord worketh wonders" from "Judas Maccabaeus") were perfect. I would send him to a speech therapist to improve his consonants - they sounded as if he had a muffin in his mouth. His acting was a bit immature, too, but that can improve.

The soprano Emma Gane was all effort; strong, but without expressive flexibility, and her top notes were thin and harsh. Quite different from Catherine Carby, who looked coolly distinguished and elegant, but was a bit too formal. Carby's mezzo-soprano voice had a very interesting quality - quite plummy (which isn't necessarily a fault) but very definitely centred. It was well-suited to Spanish songs, of which she chose several. It didn't quite fill the hall, though, and since the Wigmore has the kindest of acoustics for voices, that might limit her possibilities. Still, as Kirsten Flagstad said, you build up a voice over the years, and for a singer, 27 is still young.