Mingjie Lei, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize | Live

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize – Nigel Jarrett was at the first of two concluding finals of the world’s most prestigious competition for young professional singers.

In most competitions, victory is self-evident: winners defeat losers by measurable quantity accrued themselves and recorded by others. In music competitions, the accrual is not only recorded by others but measured by them too. Musicians contest, judges determine the victory. So a music competition is not a competition at all, but an exercise in persuasion. It need hardly be said that the judges should be fit to evaluate. But the task is always an expression of personal opinion, however authoritatively uttered. Nothing alters the fact that preferring A’s performance of music B to C’s performance of music D has little to do with how they measure up.

As long as music competitions are entertaining, they’ll always be with us, though how seriously we take them is a matter for us. At one stage BBC Singer of the World included a look at what the singers, mainly the female ones, were wearing. Some think music reduced to gladiatorial combat and low couture is not what it’s about.

What is it about? The judges at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World should know. They are called, amusingly, the ‘jury’, with no extension of the judicial analogy to include an arbiter. The competition has two elements: one in which the competitors sing individually with an orchestra, the second in which they sing mainly ‘art’ songs with a piano accompaniment; in the best form of the latter the piano part is far from secondary. Singers can enter both sections of the competition but not the Song one alone, so everyone in the Song final has already competed in the big-gun event.

For the song competition this year the judges sitting with chairman John Gilhooly, head of London’s Wigmore Hall, were the pianist Malcolm Martineau and singers Frederica von Stade, Dame Felicity Lott and Robert Holl. The jousting finalists in order of appearance were tenor Mingjie Lei (China), soprano Sooyeon Lee (South Korea), baritone Andrei Kymach (Ukraine), mezzo Angharad Lyddon (Wales), and tenor Roman Arndt (Russia). Of these, Lei, Kymach, and Lee had also reached the main final. Llyr Williams should be mentioned in this roll-call because he accompanied each finalist with such natural sympathy. He could have gone on playing for all-comers throughout the night with no loss of facility or finesse. He’d shared keyboard duties throughout the heats with Simon Lepper.

So many factors came into play at this year’s Song final, as they do to a greater or lesser extent every time the competition is held. One’s assessment begins with their sifting. Lee’s programme, to begin at random, was an overladen basket of charm, maybe in deliberate contrast to her decision in the main competition to sing just one item – a scena from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, in which work she made her title role début at the Oldenburgisches Staatstheater last December – rather than the usual handful of items chosen by contestants to indicate their versatility. The introspection of Mahler’s Ich atmet einen linden Duft, from his Rückertlieder, is only just beyond self in the love whispers of Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh and even Richard Strauss’s Du meines Herzens Krönelein.

There was coloratura towards the end of Eva Dell’Acqua’s Villanelle, but their late appearance was not enough to win her the prize. Nor did the refusal of Wales entry Lyddon to gild the lily in, for examples, Schumann’s Waldesgespräch, from his Liederkreis, and Fauré’s Le papillon et la fleur, win her the kind of approval needed in this sort of contest to edge in front – and victory is often about the thinnest of margins –  but she should be credited with warmth of feeling, pinpoint articulation, and self-assurance, not least in Vaughan Williams’s Silent Noon, from The House of Life No.2. It’s always difficult for the Wales entrant in this competition, the status of home-country representative weighing heavily. Such weight takes no account, however, of the mitigating successes of Bryn Terfel and Neal Davies. Or maybe it does.

Arndt’s programme was emotionally draining for himself and his audience. From the darkness of Brahms’s Liebestreu Op.3 No.1 to Tchaikovsky’s Don Juan’s Serenade Op. 38 No.1 and the same composer’s Why? Op.6. No. 5, this last a question posed as the narrator is clutching at a dearth of vanishing positives, a toll was being progressively taken, at least in terms of a twenty-minute recital. Even Non ti scordar di me, written as a slow waltz by Ernesto De Curtis for Gigli, which the popular Italian tenor sang in the eponymous film directed in 1935 by Augusto Genina, offered no prospect that the narrator’s wishes would be heeded despite the cyclical nature of love symbolised by the song’s ‘little swallow’. ‘Russian’ basses and baritones in old geography, especially when they come as tall as Kymach, tend to efface sane judgements on the grounds that everyone loves them as much as they love an Italian tenor. 

Kymach’s imperious top notes came winging from the Steppes with that brand of Slavic emotional strength brought to the surface in Tchaikovsky’s The love of a dead man from Op.38, the same set as Arndt’s Don Juan song, and more especially in Rachmaninov’s Fragment from Alfred de Musset Op.21 No.6 and Medtner’s Winter evening Op.13. No.1, a setting of Pushkin about stoicism and nostalgia in old age. He also included Aus Goethe’s Faust, Beethoven’s Op.75 No.3, a setting of Mephistopheles’s Song of the Flea and no less an illustration of chilling despotic humour than the more famous one by Moussorgsky. Falvo’s Neapolitan Dicitencello was added to his list, perhaps because Massenet’s Élégie was brief if piningly delivered. Kymach may have missed the top prize by a smidgen because his was a weighty ‘operatic’ twenty minutes, as those by imposing Ukrainian-Russian bass-baritones often are. They can’t help that.

Mingjie Lei, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize
Mingjie Lei wins Song Prize at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2019 © Kirsten McTernan

Lei, the eventual winner, had the worst of starts. A couple of minutes into his set, a member of the audience a few rows from the front was taken seriously ill. Lei, who could see what was going on as audience members rushed to help, was clearly perplexed. An official accompanied him and Williams off the platform and a paramedic team arrived. The auditorium was then evacuated and the final held up for ninety minutes. It was later announced that the victim had been resuscitated and taken to hospital and that his family wished for the show to continue. The outburst of applause at that news was exceeded by the reception for Lei and Williams as they returned to begin again.

Musically unfazed, Lei launched into a programme of such rapport that he must have been in contention from the start. Odd, but the keyboard preludes and postludes to Rachmaninov’s Do not sing, my beauty from Op.4 and Liszt’s I’vidi in terra angelica costume from his settings of Petrarch sonnets, gave his choices a completeness to which the singer’s communicative gifts became central. To end with Lin’s On the other side of the river was the sort of inspired move guaranteed to woo an audience with love and sympathy for a singer far from home but bringing homeland sentiments with him in a song far inferior to the ones preceding it. Lei’s programme wasn’t ambitious but it had heart, an indefinable quality utterly in accord with music’s. That singers can communicate without being winner material only complicates the issues raised by this kind of competition.

Each of the finalists will be offered a recital at the Wigmore Hall. Lei was presented with the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Patron’s Cup by the patron herself, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

Nigel Jarrett, a former daily-newspaperman, is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts Prize, both for short fiction. He is represented in the Library of Wales’s anthology of 20th– and 21st-century short stories, and is the author of a novel, a poetry collection and two collections of stories. Templar is about to publish his story pamphlet A Gloucester Trilogy. He lives in Monmouthshire, and swims a lot.

St David’s Hall, Cardiff

June 20, 2019