Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Guildhall School Gold Medal @ Barbican Hall, London

3 May 2007

The Guildhall School’s Gold Medal competition has unearthed some exceptional talent over the years, and it drew quite a crowd to the Barbican on Thursday evening.

I say evening, though by the time the panel had reached its decision, my eyelids were pretty certain that such a time was long gone.

But it was an enjoyable event, and each of the four singers gave exceptional performances that belied their comparative inexperience.

Benedict Nelson in particular proved himself to be one of the most thrilling young baritones around. His voice itself is firmly placed but tight down below, and it could do with more projection. However, he uses it with exceptional imagination.

All four singers sang a recital in each half, the first with piano accompaniment and the second backed by a luxurious but occasionally stolid Guildhall Symphony Orchestra. Nelson excelled in both. He displayed the most moonlit of piano half voices in Butterworth’s Is my team ploughing?. He brushed off Rossini’s taxingly brisk and highly placed Largo al factotum with unusual spontaneity and many a delightful idiosyncrasy. Verdi’s O Carlo, Ascolta was simply breathtaking. Nelson must, however, beware not to push to hard: some notes above the stave were not pleasant.

Katherine Broderick could be strident up above, but her line was strong throughout and her voice fully stocked with colours and reserves. Even when it is not the opening number (as it is in the opera), Bellini’s Casta Diva is difficult enough to make most sopranos turn to gibbering wrecks. Broderick swilled every line around her rose-tinted middle register and spun out the never-ending phrases with impeccable timing. I wish conductor Stephen Barlow had allowed more time for her breathing in the coloratura passages. Add to this some dramatic Wolf, some florid Mozart and a loud and exciting Dich, theure Halle from Tannhuser, and it is no surprise that the woman won.

Sophie Angebault, the other soprano suffered from a rather quavering voice and a colourless upper register. Her first half pieces were superb (no doubt helped by the obviously brilliant piano accompaniments from Annabel Thwaite) but the odd problem of projection troubled after the interval. In Ravel’s Asie, mysterious woodwind lines covered her tone. But she knows how to inhabit the stage, and that counts for an awful lot. In Messager’s J’ai duex amants, she flounced to the front of the platform and delivered the suggestive dialogue with wink-and-nudge knowingness. It was highly enjoyable.

And no, Sara Gonzlez Saavedra‘s intonation is not perfect, but I loved her take on Donizetti’s O mio Fernando. It didn’t sound Italian, but her scarlet-tinted, Spanish sound whacked through the music in a way that made a lot of sense. And after the interval, her lower registers gained power and strengthened a voice that, in the first half, had seemed a little top heavy. But excellence as a singer is related to choice of programme as well as technical ability, and her first half selection was excellent: Alison Bauld’s take on Macbeth, Banquo’s Buried, is an especially weird, brooding work with much colour contrast and dynamic juxtaposition. We need to hear more of it. Just as we need to hear more from each of the four singers.

The adjudicators included Damian Cranmer, Dame Josephine Barstow, Oliver Condy, Simon Keenlyside and Sir John Tusa.

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