Friday 3 May 2013

The Guildhall School's Gold Medal 2013

Magdalena Molendowska
in La Navarraise
(c) Clive Bardo
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Gold Medal, its premiere award for musicians, is given annually alternating between singers and instrumentalists.  Previous winners include some pretty impressive names with soprano Natalya Romaniw winning in 2011. This year four young singers came together at the Barbican Hall last night (1 May 2013) to perform for a jury which included Sir Antonio Pappano, Fiona Maddocks, Sir John Tomlinson and Jonathan Vaughan (director of music at GSMD). The singers had to perform two programmes, one with piano accompaniment and one with orchestra accompaniment from David Syrus and the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra. The four singers were James Platt, bass-baritone, Magdalena Molendowska, soprano, Lucy Hall, soprano and Joshua Owen Mills, tenor. Platt, Hall and Mills I had seen in the recent GSMD Le Nozze di Figaro and Molendowska sang the title role in their production of Massenet's La Navarraise last year.

The programmes with piano came first, running straight through with no announcements. The audience included quite a number of fellow students, so that the atmosphere was extremely supportive and I doubt that the singers will encounter such enthusiastic applause again for a long time.

James Platt, accompanied by Christopher White, gave a nicely balanced and well thought out programme consisting of Schubert's Der Atlas, Mendelssohn's Nachtlied, Faure's Les Berceaux, Britten's O Waly Waly and Warlock's Captain Stratton's Fancy. He has a darkly resonant bass-baritone voice, and when he allowed himself, displayed a strong personality (his performance of the Warlock was a total delight), though the recital platform did not seem his natural habitat.

Magdalena Molendowska, accompanied by Catherine Norton, started with a simply stunning account of Duparc's Au pays ou se fait la guerre. She has a bright lyric voice, which veers towards the spinto and you just know that it will develop more dramatically. She had a very fine feeling for line, and brought that extra special something to Duparc's song. All her recital items where presented in a slightly dramatic way, she was not a singer to keep still and seemed a natural on stage. She followed the Duparc with Wichrowski's Liscie (singing in her native Polish), Tchaikovsky's Reconciliation (in Russian), and Dvorak's Songs my mother taught me (in Czech). All continued to delight and impress, but I did wonder whether another non-Slavic item might have been a good idea.

Lucy Hall, accompanied by Gavin Roberts, showed a nicely vibrant lyric soprano voice allied to a deeply serious artistic personality. She started with three finely judged performances of songs from Richard Strauss's Opus 28, Ruhe meine Seele, Cacilie and Morgen. Each beautifully judged with a lovely tone. Hall was all stillness on stage, acting just with her voice, but she became wonderfully sexy and seductive in Debussy's Romance d'Ariel displaying glorious tone and a lovely high register. Finally Poulenc's Le petit garcon trop bien portant was a vivid delight.

Joshua Owen Mills, accompanied by Anna Cardona, were the final performers in part one. Mills has a lovely, focussed lyric tenor voice which seems to contain infinite possibilities, during the evening he displayed it in a wide variety of roles. His was another nicely balanced programme, starting with At Day-Close in November from Britten's Winter Words then Poulenc's Bleuet and Voyage a Paris, I vidi in terra from Liszt's  Tre sonetti di Petrarca and finally Leoncavallo's Mattinata. If not every item was quite perfect, Mills displayed a remarkably sure feel for style and great versatility, convincingly changing tone and style for each composer and doing it all with winning charm.

During the interval we had great fun talking about the performers and attempting to second guess the results. But the introduction of the orchestra was going to make a big difference.

Platt opened with Leporello's Madamina from Don Giovanni and Platt was a changed man. He brought vivid humour and a nicely dramatic feel to the performance. His Banquo, singing Come dal ciel precipita from Macbeth was completely different, with a lovely dark tinta, and a richly supported Verdian line. His Claggart was impressive, singing Oh Beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness from Britten's Billy Budd. It was a performance of great complexity and dramatic power but you felt it lacked the edge of malevolence, Claggart is a role which Platt will grow into I think.

Molendowska returned with a knock-out pairing of Puccini's Vissi d'arte from Tosca and Ritorna vincitor from Verdi's Aida. In both she offered vivid intensity, wonderful power and control allied to a gleaming tone and superb line. Both performances seemed entirely fully formed. She complete her performance with Do not utter a word from Barber's Vanessa, singing in good English with lovely flexible and pliable melodic lines and a gloriously floated conclusion. It certainly made me long to hear her in the complete opera.

Lucy Hall started with a non-operatic piece, the Alleluia from Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate performed with fine phrasing and lovely fioriture. She then offered a nicely expressive O quante volte, Giulietta's aria from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. In both of these it was clear that here was a seriously thoughtful and classy talent. Finally, she was all pert, vivid charm in Annchen's Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen.

Joshua Owen Mills opened with Tamino's Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schone from Mozart's Die Zaubertflote, sung with a near ideal combination of youth, brightness of tone and line. He followed this with two movements (Pastoral  and Hymn) from Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, with Alexander Edmundson (himself studying at GSMD) as the solo horn. Here Mills showed a good feel for Britten's line and for the words, with a nice verbal dexterity in Hymn allied to a great sense of humour. Mills final item was something of a surprise. In his recital programme he had shown himself highly sympathetic to Poulenc's songs, and his feel for the French language re-occurred in what can only be described as a spectacular performance of Romeo's Ah! leve-toi, soleil! from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Mills combined a lovely sense of line, fine control in the upper register with great intensity, giving a highly idiomatic performance of a repertoire which is very difficult to get right.

After a presentation from GSMD principal Barry Ife about the forthcoming Milton Court development, which opens in September, we came to the presentation of the awards. In his opening comments Sir Antonio Pappano commented on the beautiful choices of repertoire and frankly, I did not envy the judge's job.

I perhaps should have made clear that the pianists in the first half were all themselves students and young professionals and Anna Cardona was presented with the accompanist's prize for her fine work in a programme which had encompassed, Britten, Poulenc, Liszt and Leoncavallo.

Second prize was presented to Joshua Owen Mills and first prize went to Magdalena Molendowska (who clearly got the audience prize as well judging from the reaction to their announcement.

This was one of those competitions where the performers were so close that it was possible to identify virtues in all and I look forward to hearing all of them again very soon.

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