Lemalu, first among equals

Kathleen Ferrier Awards, Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

The Kathleen Ferrier Awards happen each year. Open to anyone who has studied in the UK, the net is not cast as wide as Cardiff Singer of the World, but past winners have included Bryn Terfel, Joan Rodgers and Margaret Price. You have to be under 29 – when some singers haven't even started – so it isn't surprising that all but one of this year's 11 semi-finalists seemed not fully formed. The exception was the bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu – as clear a front runner as ever I came across. He got into the final, of course, and I wouldn't quarrel violently with the jury's choice of the four other finalists, but it was a slight pity the Swedish-born mezzo Louise Reitberger was dropped.

True, she was wooden on stage, nor had she the seductive quality needed for Saint-Saëns's kitschy "Amour, viens aider", but she made a lovely sound otherwise – a good old-fashioned contralto in all but name. Singers don't like to be called that nowadays, for vocal styles change and what opera houses want exerts a strong influence on voice training. Do any singers truly find themselves, or do they all try to fit some sort of stereotype? In the song repertoire there is more room for individuality, but none of these singers seemed, to me, a particularly gifted interpreter of either French mélodie or German lieder, or even English song. Some did individual songs well, but generally, the classic repertoire of Schubert and Brahms, Fauré and Duparc, found them inhibited.

One finalist, the soprano Ailish Tynan, is quite clearly destined for girlish roles like Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. She sang "Deh vieni" nicely, and also Strauss's fluttering "Standchen". In anything more serious she was unconvincing. Then Andrew Kennedy pitched forth a high, light tenor, which could almost become what the French call haute-contre in music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Though fearless in attack, his voice is too small for Italian opera, in which he was inclined to sound squawky. He was promising in songs by Brahms and Schubert, however – he just needs to loosen up and become more expressive.

The song prize – which I wouldn't have awarded at all – went to Julianne de Villiers, who certainly had the best stage presence of all the girls, but I didn't like her attempts at flirtatious humour in two songs by Britten. Her mezzo is as yet a bit thin and rather uniform in colour, though clean and well-focused.

The first prize was divided between another mezzo, Karen Cargill, and Lemalu. Cargill made a smooth, noble sound in an aria from Handel's Xerxes, but she seemed too in awe of songs by Duparc and Schumann, and vocally uneven in an aria from The Rape of Lucretia. Promising, is all I can say. But Jonathan Lemalu is more, and already has a healthy list of good engagements. Nature has blessed him with a striking physical presence – as solid as a rock but with an open, expressive face – and a voice that is sumptuous and colourful. He can forget Fauré and Schubert, for they did not write for the likes of him. Instead, there's a great deal he can lavish his considerable histrionic – and comic – talents upon. William Bolcom's "Black Max" was an absolute gift and brought the house down. Then he relished the chance to act in arias from Gounod's Faust and Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

As for the "accompanists", the prize went to Simon Lepper, though he was the weakest: a depressing sign that some people want a pianist to be a dim shadow rather than a partner.