BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011 Song Prize – Ukrainian wins with Sviridov songs

18/06/2011

Cardiff Singer of the World – Song Prize Final : St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 17.6.2011 (NHR)

Leah Crocetto, soprano
Máire Flavin, mezzo-soprano
Andrei Bondarenko, baritone
Valentina Naforniţă, soprano
Olga Kindler, soprano

Llyr Williams, piano
Simon Lepper, piano

It was no surprise that the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko should have won the Song Prize final. His group from Schumann’s Eichendorff Liederkreis Op. 39, the first four songs in the cycle, began rather tentatively, but soon began to open out into serious weight and resonant projection. He didn’t, though, quite overcome the sense I had that he was approaching these works from the outside, as it were: he didn’t convincingly distinguish the two voices in ‘Waldesgespräch’, and the nuances of mood tended to be slightly buried under the beautiful sound. Where he really won over the audience was in his second group, of Russian songs by Georgy Sviridov. Here he was able not just to evoke but really to inhabit a mysterious, rustling forest world of uneasy, superstitious longing. These little-known works made the most of the effortless (dare one say unsophisticated?) directness of his singing. He is only 24, but already well on the way to becoming a formidable performer.

Perhaps none of the other four finalists was ever quite at home in her music in the way Bondarenko seemed to be here; but that said, I didn’t feel his was a runaway victory, and a perfectly plausible case could have been made for virtually any of them. I don’t think there was a better single performance all evening than the very first, the American soprano Leah Crocetto’s rendering of one of Liszt’s Petrarch sonnets (better known as a piano work in the Italian Années de Pélérinage). The immediate radiance and power of her singing set the bar extremely high. The rest of her recital didn’t quite match up, while never being less than excellent. At 31, she already has a mature composure and a recognisable performing style which I’d like to hear facing greater intellectual challenges – although that would be a comment on the whole evening rather than on her performance alone.

The general choice of repertoire was intriguing: selected with a competition final in mind, of course, and constrained by its special requirements, but it was notable that no-one sang anything by Schubert, Brahms, Wolf or Mahler. The only direct comparison we could make came with both the Irish mezzo Máire Flavin and the Moldovan soprano Valentina Naforniţă singing Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ – one of the great melodies in Western music, but not, I would imagine, a work making enormous demands on a professional, other than those arising from its sheer familiarity (they both sang it very attractively). Flavin has warmth in her voice and a striking, confidently wholesome stage personality, most at ease in French repertoire here, Duparc especially. Naforniţă, like Bondarenko just 24, suggested in some ways the greatest potential of all the five: reserves of power and a sense of dramatic immersion, kittenish and perhaps occasionally a little shallow now, but with unmistakable glimpses of the tigress to come. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that opera, rather than lieder, will be her main field, even if one hadn’t seen her performances earlier in the competition.

The Swiss-domiciled Olga Kindler made the most of her late call-up to the competition and sang with a mellow tone and a fine sense of line, rather boldly finishing with Strauss’s ‘Im Abendrot’, much the biggest of all the songs in the evening and given a very accomplished if not hugely memorable performance. One missed the grand orchestral textures which normally help hold the voice afloat, but that kind of reflection gives me an opportunity to mention the exceptional delicacy, control and discretion of Llyr Williams in the piano part. Simon Lepper, who accompanied Flavin and Naforniţă, was superbly modest, sympathetic and reliable, but at times Llyr Williams was something a little more than that, finding some moments of touch and phrasing, especially here at the end, that could not have been bettered.

Neil Reeve

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