Music review: The Lieder of the pack

International Song Competition Wigmore Hall, London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
London's Wigmore Hall now carries such prestige, its own International Song Competition, launched this year, prompted high expectations. From 112 entries, 36 competitors were selected by recorded auditions. They all gave short recitals in the preliminary stages last week, then 12 semi- finalists gave recitals with fresh programmes on Thursday, and three finalists - all baritones - on Saturday.

The distinguished jury, including Graham Johnson as chairman, Rudolf Jansen, Margaret Price, Peter Schreier and Elisabeth Soderstrom were unanimous on the winner. Given the choice of finalists, I agreed with them. But then I would have drawn up different lists for both the last two stages. Which is no more than you expect in competitions.

The first baritone to perform on Saturday was the 27- year-old German, Sebastian Noack. He had a well-rounded, not very large voice, but sang over the audience rather than to them. The impression was a touch austere and cerebral. His phlegmatic accompanist hardly encouraged a very urgent performance of Schubert's turbulent "Aufenthalt", nor much in the way of lilting charm in "Das Fischermadchen". Oddly enough, they were less inhibited in the first and third songs of Ravel's Don Quichotte a Dulcinee, though Noack seemed slightly strained in the middle song.

Richard Rodney Bennett's rather corny Donne setting, "Death, be not proud", alternating piano flourishes with declamatory singing, rang out strongly, but Brahms's Four Serious Songs were a bit lightweight, with some high notes impoverished and hooting. Noack got second prize.

The upper age limit in the competition was 32 - rather young, surely - and the third prizewinner, Herman Wallen, was only 19. He's Finnish but lives in Germany and is a pupil of Mitsuko Shirai. He confirmed the impression he made in the semi-final - a warm, soft-grained voice, carefully produced but insufficiently supported and inclined to go out of tune on high notes. Wallen began with Schubert's magical, ballad-like "Der Zwerg", in which his excellent accompanist, Kanako Nakagawa, had a job to do to balance her part with his rather feeble emission of sound. At the start of Strauss's "Standchen", he simply couldn't be heard, and he didn't convey much of sorrow's intensity in "Lob des Leidens". Wallen clearly has a long way to go. He came third, but I wouldn't have put him in the finals at all.

The last singer, Marcus DeLoach, came on to the platform after the interval as if he meant to win, and he did. He was by far the best performer; he really addressed the audience. He has a bright, tenorish voice with very strong upper partials - it cuts the air like a knife. He didn't offer a wide range of colour, but he did seem to sing words rather than fit his voice to phonemes. Shrewdly, he began on his own homeground, with American traditional songs, winning hearts at once with "Rio Grande", beautifully sung. He really entered into the spirit of Schubert's "Fischerweise", pointing its worldly-wise punchline with a perfectly apt arm gesture. And with his voice alone, he emphasised the intoxication ("Ivres d'air et de sel") towards the end of Faure's "La mer est infinie". He would have sounded even better with a more subtle accompanist. Anyway, there was no argument with his final group - four Old American Songs by Copland - and with the accumulating menagerie noises of "I bought me a cat", he left the audience smiling and happy.

DeLoach deserved to win, for this competition is for the performance of song rather than German Lieder, and he was one of the few entrants to make each song a message. The next competition is in two years' time, and most people seem to be hoping the general standard will be higher. But then, if the judges had really thought the standard was disappointing, they needn't have awarded a first prize at all.

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