Mastersingers — from Cardiff to Cohen

I’ve been catching up with the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, having missed much of it while on holiday last week. As music contests go, this is one that’s consistently worth hearing. So many of its past winners have gone on to starry careers – Bryn Terfel, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Karita Mattila et al – that you can be almost sure of encountering some world-class voices every time.

Having so said, I’ve been a tad disappointed with the standard this year: there seemed to be a prevalence of squawky sopranos and non-dynamic baritones, so I couldn’t help approaching the televised highlights of the Song Prize final last night with some trepidation.

In the end we heard at least two astonishing voices, and the right guy got the prize: Jan Martiník, a great gentle giant from the Czech Republic, his voice as dark and finely flavoured as a good Bordeaux, his manner non-flamboyant yet irresistible, and his versatility undoubted while he roved from Saint-Saëns (including the rapid-fire ‘Danse Macabre’) to Schubert’s terrifying ‘Der Doppelgänger’ I couldn’t find video clips of the Song Prize on the contest website, but here he is as Rossini’s Dr Bartolo, proving that he certainly had the best eyebrows in the competition as well a fairly naughty sense of humour. The versatile and musical counter-tenor Yuriy Mynenko was popular too, of course (counter-tenors usually are, heaven knows why) and we are bound to hear much more of him in the future.

We already know that the contest’s top prize has gone to the Russian soprano Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, but it always strikes me that it’s Lieder singing that sorts out the feta from the chèvre. Lieder is a totally different kettle of fish, or cheese, from opera, demanding all those qualities that mostly vanish when someone is faced with mass media, giant stages or both – vulnerability, subtlety, heartfelt emotion with much nuance…That’s where Martiník scored. And the over-emoting others – especially the Welsh contender, Nataliya Romaniw, and the Japanese girl who took part at the last moment after the Croatian contestant dropped out – could have learned a thing or two from the performance that followed the broadcast directly on BBC4…

Where else could you see Leonard Cohen in concert right after a thing like this?

Cohen is 73 rather than 22, performing to the gigantic O2 Centre rather than a plain old concert hall. He has everything that the youngsters lacked in terms of song delivery. No histrionics. No flouncing, pouting or praying. Rapt and focused, he concentrates everything into the words. You like his voice or you don’t, but the secret is in the lyrics and the way he tells his story, served by the song. Lenny’s songs are Lieder for today; and Lieder, like Lenny, needs to speak as well as sing.

As for the competitors’ future success, watch out for Audience Prize-winner Giordano Lucà from Italy – after all, nobody can resist a real Italian tenor with a good-sized soundbox. Hear him sing Donizetti’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ here. Shcherbachenko is a glory, though: her performance of Liu’s aria from Turandot in the final has a mesmerising magic about it and I reckon she was bound to take the top place. But I’ll be off to hear Martiník at the first opportunity.  

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