Main Prize Concert 4 Céline Forrest Cardiff Singer of the World BBC Nadine Koutcher

Song Prize Final: BBC #CardiffSinger

The Song Prize Final of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World took place last night, June 19 2015, at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, and was won by the 28-year-old bass, Jongmin Park, of South Korea. Steph Power was there for Wales Arts Review, and continues her look at art song in an in-depth review of the evening.

Cardiff’s St David’s Hall has a fine and generously accommodating acoustic, enabling ensembles of widely contrasting types and proportions to be heard equally to advantage. But there is always a certain recalibration of the senses required when the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize relocates to the venue from the intimate surrounds of the RWCMD’s Dora Stoutzker Hall for the competition’s Song Prize Final. It’s partly the broadcasting-induced pomp and circumstance of the occasion, which seems to increase with each competition. Yet, beneath that, there’s also the intriguing challenge for the singers and their pianists of communicating the intense, almost private, poetic subtlety of the art song within a setting far larger than the songs were usually composed for. That each of the five finalists of 2015 managed to convey the impression that we were sitting in the same, small room was testament to their exceptional artistry.

Jongmin Park, winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2015 Song Prize. Photo courtesy of the BBC.
Jongmin Park, winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2015 Song Prize Final. Photo courtesy of the BBC.

Few songs in the repertoire – like the poetry they set – straightforwardly portray one single mood or scenario, or an uncomplicated sequence of emotions. Rather, they often seek to give voice to the ambiguous or the equivocal in a way which offers its own challenges. The 29-year-old Mongolian baritone, Amartuvshin Enkhbat, opened the evening with a song that seemed to epitomise the very creative tension that gives the art song its special magic; Rachmaninov’s ‘In the Silence of the Night’ describes the poet’s urge to be silent so he can call his beloved to mind. How to sing about silence – or, more widely, how to balance inner reflection with outwards expression?

Song Prize Final
Amartuvshin Enkhbat (image credit: Metropolitan Opera)

Enkhbat proved adept both here and across his chosen programme, and he had to have been a strong contender for the prize, which was eventually awarded to Jongmin Park. The Mongolian’s is a magnificent voice and he applied it with an instinctive calm nobility, darkening the hue for Schumann’s Dichterliebe ‘Ich grolle nicht’ to convey the heartbroken lover who generously grieves for the unhappiness of the woman who has left him.

There was infinite tenderness in the harmonic minor swerves of the Mongolian song, ‘Your tears’, by Natsag Jantsannorov – followed by Neapolitan charm and Spanish pastoral wit in songs by De Curtis and Jacinto Guerrero respectively. Not a gesture was superfluous, not a run nor a long, pianissimo legato was misjudged or lacking in fluency. The control of tone and timbre was masterful across the range – and the only surprise is that Enkhbat has not already been swept into a glittering international career.

Unlike Enkhbat, the Canadian soprano Aviva Fortunata has not made it through to the Final of the Main Prize tomorrow, June 21, and so here was her last chance to shine in Cardiff. She is a singer with great vocal command who pays rigorous attention to detail, and her programme was a carefully polished sequence of Britten, Hahn and Wolf; the bitter roses of Wolf’s betrayed lover ‘Agnes’ from the Mörike-Lieder giving way to the rose of simple adoration in the traditional Scottish folksong, ‘My love is like a red, red, rose’ to finish. There was much to enjoy here, with a full, creamy sound and some lovely turns of phrase. Yet the contrasts promised by the programme did not fully translate into a variety of vocal colour and stylistic approach.

The bitter-sweet, highly concentrated world of Hugo Wolf is especially elusive, and quite different from the traditional mélodie of the French-Venezuelan Hahn – the second of whose songs, ‘Dans la nuit’, from Études Latines No 7, was the most beguilingly performed. However, Fortunata’s coy flourish at the end of Wolf’s ‘Mein Liebster ist so klein’ from the Italienisches Liederbuch confused the audience into applauding – albeit delightedly – contrary to her request, before the end of the sequence.

It was Wolf who opened the final programme for the Turkish/Austrian tenor Ilker Arcayürek, who went on to perform songs by Schubert, Rachmaninov and Duparc. After some settling, he proved quietly accomplished, with an air of the tortured Romantic poet about him that drew the audience in. It was a very moving and subtle performance overall, somewhat small-voiced in places, but with an imaginative use of characterisation, for example, in Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’, with a whispering tone that had an almost Sprechstimme intensity. This was his best-performed song. It was a pity that Rachmaninov’s ‘Spring Waters’ failed to hold the rapt atmosphere, and Arcayürek suffered here with an uneven, sometimes thin, tone. The two Duparc songs which followed, ‘Extase’ and ‘Phydyté’, were more controlled, but might just as soon have been describing melancholy as the sensual languor of the respective texts.

Nadine Koutcher of Belarus (image credit: Teatr Wielki Opera Narodowa)

There were no such caveats in the performance of Nadine Koutcher, the astonishing Belarus soprano who would have been my choice to win the prize. Her presence was commanding without being overly forthright, and her voice was majestic, clear and warm, with a sinuous elasticity from top to bottom that made it all seem deceptively easy. The programme was delicious from beginning to end – and beautifully played, too, by pianist Llŷr Williams, with an acute, almost telepathic sensitivity. Barber’s ‘Sure on this shining night’ had an ideal balance of focus and dreaminess, which carried into Berg’s ‘Die Nachtigall’ from the 7 Early Songs (oh, to hear Koutcher perform the other six of this ravishing set!). The floated top notes and effortless leaps in Debussy’s ‘Pierrot’ from 4 chansons de jeunesse were matched by the subtle gradations of tone and character in each of the four Rachmaninov songs which followed.

This was a special performance indeed; light as alabaster but steel-strong and full of poetic ardour. Koutcher seemed to wholly inhabit that seeming paradox of the art song in its transformation of the fleeting and the insubstantial into something that is absolute and all-consuming for the duration of the song – and which, once heard, leaves an indelible impression on the mind and senses. There was purity, yes, and a sense of the transcendent, but one which was thoroughly grounded by an extraordinary technique and naturalness of delivery. Rachmaninov’s ‘To her’, describing a lover waiting for one who never comes, was utterly heartrending, and we were soothed by the meditative quality of ‘A Dream’, ‘How nice it is here’ and the final, exquisite ‘Vocalise’, without its impact being superceded. Without a doubt, Koutcher will be one of the strongest contenders for the Main Prize, and will, in any case, surely go on to enjoy a career of international acclaim.

None of this takes away from the achievement of the final and winning candidate, the South Korean bass, Jongmin Park. His recital heat had been beautifully sung, and he rose to the larger St David’s Hall audience with a substantial programme of Schubert, Schumann, Tosti and a final South Korean ‘Boat Song’ by his countryman, Du-Nam Cho. With a richly warm and generous sound throughout, he displayed the same, passionate intensity in the upper, almost baritonal reaches of the register as he had last Tuesday at the Dora Stoutzker Hall. There was colour and shade in abundance, with great dynamic variety, and an especially nuanced quiet spectrum for one with such a big voice. Featured by turn were the craving for solitude, wretchedness and gentle musing in, respectively,  Schubert’s ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’ (Gesänges des Harfners), ‘Der Atlas’ (Schwangesang No 8) and Schumann’s ‘Stille Tränen’. If there was more declamation than exclamation in the middle one of these three, Park’s ability to gather and hold the audience was impressive here and in the final two items which followed. Clearly, he also impressed the judges, and he will come as a wild card contender to tomorrow’s Main Prize final with an extra spring in his step.

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize Final

Amartuvshin Enkhbat (baritone, 29, Mongolia)
Aviva Fortunata (soprano, 27, Canada)
Ilker Arcayürek (tenor, 30, Turkey/Austria)
Nadine Koutcher (soprano, 32, Belarus)
Jongmin Park (bass, 28, South Korea)

Accompanists: Simon Lepper, Llŷr Williams

Jury: David Pountney (Chair) / Julius Drake / John Gilhooly / Soile Isokoski / Claron McFadden

The five finalists for the Main Prize at St David’s Hall tomorrow night, June 21 2015, are as follows:

Nadine Koutcher
Oleksiy Palchykov
Amartuvshin Enkhbat
Lauren Michelle
Jongmin Park


Illustration by Dean Lewis

Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.